A virus is a toxic parasite made up of genetic material, lipids and proteins that can, once attached to a host, begin to reproduce, causing illness. Viruses cause a number of different illnesses, from the common cold to HIV. Some are preventable with the treatment of vaccines, and others treatable with antiviral medication. Viruses cause a host of symptoms that can lead to other problems, including low potassium. Having a low potassium level can be dangerous, and knowing which viruses cause it might help you prevent it.
Low potassium, also known as hypokalemia, is a condition in which your blood potassium level is lower than normal. Potassium is a mineral your body needs for nerve and muscle function, and it's especially important for maintaining a normal heartbeat. Having low blood potassium can lead to fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps, constipation or irregular heartbeat. The most common cause of low potassium is excessive loss through urination or the digestive tract. Viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea might lead to low potassium levels.
Viral gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu, is an infection that occurs in the intestines, causing watery diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain or fever. Infection with viral gastroenteritis occurs through contact with an infected person, or by eating or drinking contaminated foods or beverages. Due to the excessive vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration and loss of minerals such as potassium are primary concerns. Drinking fluids with potassium, such as orange juice, milk or sports drinks, can help keep you hydrated while replacing your potassium losses. If you cannot tolerate fluids, you should immediately contact your doctor for suggestions. Infants and the elderly can dehydrate very quickly and might require hospitalization.
Influenza, or the flu, is a common respiratory viral infection. The flu causes a host of symptoms, including fever, aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose and fatigue. The flu itself does not cause low potassium levels, but in children, it can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, which can cause low potassium levels. If your child has the flu, along with vomiting and diarrhea, it is important that they stay hydrated. You can try pediatric electrolyte drinks or ice pops, or juice to help replace both fluid and potassium.
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious viral infection that affects your liver. You can get hepatitis A by consuming foods or beverages contaminated with the virus, usually from fecal matter. In some cases, infection with hepatitis A can lead to acute liver failure. Your liver is an important organ necessary for nutrient metabolism and storage. Liver failure causes a number of nutrient deficiencies, including potassium. Hospitalization is required for treatment of liver failure. Hepatitis A also causes nausea and vomiting, which can also deplete potassium stores. Eating can be difficult for people with hepatitis A, making it harder to replace potassium losses. Eat small, frequent meals with easy-to-digest foods such as soup, crackers, yogurt and juice.
- Medical News Today; "What is a Virus? What is a Viral Infection"; July 2009
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; "Influenza"; June 2011
- "Krause's Food, Nutrition and Diet Therapy"; L. Kathleen Mahan et al; 1996