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Low Potassium Levels & Shortness of Breath

by
author image Michela Dai Zovi
Michela Dai Zovi has been writing professionally since 2008. She is an advice columnist for "Five on Five Magazine," a quarterly periodical for roller-derby players and fans. Dai Zovi holds a a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of New Mexico.
Low Potassium Levels & Shortness of Breath
Apricots on a wooden table Photo Credit ValentynVolkov/iStock/Getty Images

The next time you feel winded it might not be because you're out of shape -- low potassium levels can also contribute to shortness of breath, also called "dyspnea." There are many different reasons why you might have low potassium levels, and it's important to recognize the symptoms and causes before deadly complications arise.

What is Potassium?

Potassium, along with sodium and chloride, are minerals that work like electrolytes in your body. You need these electrolytes in order for your body fluids, muscle contractions and nerve transmissions to function properly. Potassium is available in foods such as apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, kiwis, lima beans, oranges, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and even milk. You can increase your potassium level by consuming any of these, but you should know that low potassium levels are rarely related to diet.

Hypokalemia

When your potassium level is too low it is called hypokalemia. Generally the potassium level in your serum -- the cell-free fluid of the bloodstream -- should be between 3.6 to 4.8 milliequivalents per liter, or mEq/L. If your potassium level is under 3.5 it is considered low, and if it drops below 2.5 it can be life threatening and may require immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of low potassium include shortness of breath, sudden thirst, dizziness when standing up, muscle weakness, twitching or spasms and muscular or intestinal paralysis.

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Why Does It Make You Short of Breath?

When you have low potassium levels, it can make you feel short of breath because low potassium can cause your heart to beat irregularly. When you have an irregular heart rhythm, less blood is pumped from your atria and into the ventricles, causing less blood to circulate in the body. This blood then starts to collect in the lungs and cause shortness of breath, among other potentially serious symptoms.

Causes

If your potassium level is too low it's probably not because you're not getting enough, but more often because you're losing it so quickly your body can't keep up. Potassium is usually gained through ingesting potassium-rich foods, but it can also be absorbed intravenously in an emergency.

Frequent causes for low potassium are excessive fluid loss through urination, vomiting, or diarrhea; use of laxatives; eating disorders; chronic kidney failure; and an increase in movement from blood into cells, often associated with thyroid issues.

Caution

If your potassium level is low, it might be from not eating enough potassium-rich foods. More likely your potassium level is low due to fluid loss, and your low potassium is a symptom of a larger problem. Low potassium level is linked to shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, gastrointestinal problems, type II diabetes, and some adrenal disorders. Any time you find yourself experiencing unfamiliar or uncomfortable symptoms, you should consult your doctor.

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