Hypokalemia is a common electrolyte disturbance, observed in > 20% of hospitalized patients. Hypokalemia, although not formally defined, is generally considered to be when serum potassium levels fall below the normal value of 3.6 mmol/L. In contrast to other electrolytes, potassium is primarily an intracellular ion: only 2% of all potassium in the body is present in the extracellular fluid, so a small decrease in serum potassium may represent a significant decrease in intracellular potassium. Individuals with mildly decreased potassium levels (3.0-3.5 mmol/L) may be asymptomatic, but patients with more pronounced decreases may report symptoms including muscle weakness, fatigue, and constipation. Very low serum potassium levels (≤ 2.5 mmol/L) can lead to muscle necrosis, paralysis, cardiac arrhythmias, and impaired respiration, which can be life-threatening. Absent comprehensive and robust treatment guidelines, strategies for the prevention or treatment of hypokalemia, such as how to diagnose hypokalemia, when to treat patients, what dosage regimen of potassium supplementation to use and for how long, are often based on the experience of the physician and empirical evidence. However, proper evaluation and treatment of hypokalemia in patients is essential because of associated morbidities. Because small potassium deficits in serum represent large body losses, potassium repletion requires substantial and prolonged supplementation. For patients with known risk factors for hypokalemia (e.g. hypertension, heart failure, or diabetes), careful monitoring is crucial to avoid the adverse sequelae associated with potassium deficits and to ensure that adequate and timely preventive measures can be taken. In this review, we provide practical insights into the etiology, differential diagnosis, and treatment of hypokalemia, including treatment strategies for patients with known risk factors.
Keywords: Heart failure; hypertension; hypokalemia; potassium.