Leukemia is a type of cancer that usually attacks white blood cells first, followed by the bone marrow and the body’s lymphatic system. Leukemia causes the body to create abnormally large amounts of damaged white blood cells, which are ineffective in their usual role as infection fighters. Leukemia requires aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy and other medications to prevent and treat symptoms and side effects, all of which can cause or contribute to low potassium levels, a condition known as hypokalemia.
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Potassium and Hypokalemia
Your body uses the electrolyte potassium to maintain the health and function of your heart and nervous system. Your body regulates its potassium level by moving potassium in and out of blood cells and excreting potassium through your kidneys. Interruptions to the body’s ability to regulate potassium levels can result in hypokalemia. The symptoms of hypokalemia, which may not show until potassium levels are especially low, include muscle weakness and cramps and changes in electrocardiogram test results.
Hypokalemia can occur as a side effect of chemotherapy, which is a treatment for leukemia. Medications, such as certain antibiotics and diuretics used to treat the frequent infections and other symptoms of leukemia, can cause low potassium levels. The medications used in chemotherapy, and the process itself, can result in hypokalemia. Leukemia can cause your kidneys to remove too much potassium. Some leukemia symptoms, such as fever, vomiting and excessive sweating, can decrease potassium levels.
You might not experience symptoms if you have a small drop in your potassium levels. The symptoms of a more significant drop in levels might include severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, lingering poor appetite, shortness of breath, palpitations or chest pain. A significant drop in your potassium level can result in constipation, muscle weakness and damage, abnormal heart rhythms and fatigue. Long-term hypokalemia can damage your kidneys and lead to paralysis that includes the lungs.
Treatment of low potassium levels might include eating foods high in potassium -- such as bananas, orange juice and leafy green vegetables -- and avoiding foods that can contribute to electrolyte imbalance, such as alcoholic beverages and caffeinated drinks. Your doctor may prescribe potassium supplements if your levels are dangerously low. You might need to take magnesium supplements, since magnesium is often required to increase potassium levels. Prescription medications are available that help your body retain potassium while eliminating excess water.
See your doctor if you suspect you have low potassium levels, if you have any of the symptoms of the condition or before trying to treat low potassium levels with dietary supplements or other measures.