How To Tell If Your Loved One’s Potassium Is Low

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Tue Aug 29 2023.

Banana bunches.

Potassium is an essential nutrient found in many fruits and vegetables. It plays a role in various bodily functions, including the regulation of muscle contractions, nerve signals, and kidney function. There’s even evidence that potassium can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke

Considering its importance, you might think that potassium deficiency is rare. But that isn’t the case. In fact, only 2% of Americans get the recommended amount of 2,600-3,400 milligrams of potassium per day.

Because low potassium increases the risk of health problems, it’s important to know the warning signs and how to address them.

What You’ll Need

The easiest way to know if your loved one is potassium deficient is to undergo blood work at the doctor. However, you can gain valuable insights by using a blood pressure cuff or electrocardiogram (EKG) monitor for at-home use. These devices can alert you to irregular heart rhythms associated with low potassium. 

Steps to Help a Loved One Treat Low Potassium

Step 1: Determine Potassium Levels

Low potassium is a common problem, but it rarely presents symptoms. Some people experience fatigue, dizziness, and muscle cramps, but these side effects don’t appear until blood potassium levels are very low. 

If you’re worried that your loved one isn’t getting enough potassium, make an appointment with their doctor. A basic metabolic panel (BMP) can quickly analyze a blood sample and determine if potassium levels are normal, low, or extremely low.

Step 2: Interpret The Test Results

Potassium levels are measured in milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L) of blood. 

Normal potassium levels for adults vary, but generally speaking, the results fall into one of three categories:

  • Normal potassium - 3.5-5.2 (mEq/L)

  • Mild low potassium (hypokalemia) - 3-3.5 (mEq/L)

  • Severe low potassium (severe hypokalemia) - Anything lower than 3 (mEq/L)

Any reading of 3.5 or lower indicates potassium deficiency and should be taken seriously.

Step 3: Determine the Underlying Cause

Potassium deficiency is very common, but some people have an increased risk.

“Certain groups of people are more likely to have a potassium deficiency,” said Brian Clark, BSN, MSNA, Founder of United Medical Education. “These groups include older adults, people with chronic kidney disease, and those taking diuretics.”

Other factors that contribute to potassium deficiency include digestive problems. For example, if your loved one has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it might affect their ability to absorb nutrients and electrolytes. 

Step 4: Develop a Treatment Plan

If blood work confirms that your loved one has low potassium, the next step is preventing it from getting worse. 

Mild potassium deficiency often improves with diet changes, but severe cases may require medical intervention.

“Your loved one’s doctor may recommend potassium supplements or medication adjustments, depending on the underlying cause,” Clark says.

Step 5: Focus on Improved Nutrition

Incorporating certain foods into your loved one’s diet can help restore potassium levels and prevent side effects. Clark recommends adding potassium-rich foods to snacks and meals, including:

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Bananas

  • Oranges

  • Tomatoes

  • Spinach

  • Avocados

  • Beet greens

  • Beans and lentils

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Mangos

Yogurt and salmon are also potassium rich.

Step 6: Limit Processed Foods

“If your loved one is potassium deficient, avoid processed foods that are high in sodium,” said Clark. “Sodium and potassium balance is important for optimal health. But you don’t have to avoid junk food altogether unless specifically instructed by your doctor.”

How to Tell if Your Potassium Is Low - Commonly Asked Questions

1) Are there at-home tests for potassium deficiency?

There aren’t any at-home tests that screen for potassium deficiency. The best way to know if you or your loved one is potassium deficient is to schedule blood work with your primary care physician. 

2) Does drinking alcohol increase my risk of potassium deficiency?

Yes. Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of potassium deficiency. Your body needs potassium to metabolize (break down) alcohol. Drinking too much depletes your potassium stores. 

3) Is low potassium bad for the kidneys?

It can be. Potassium is one of several electrolytes that help regulate kidney function. If your potassium levels are abnormally high or low for too long, it can affect your body’s ability to process waste. 

4) What are common symptoms of low potassium?

Low potassium affects everyone differently, but there are symptoms to watch out for, including weakness, fatigue, confusion, constipation, irregular heartbeat, and increased urination. If you or your loved one have any of these symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible. 


If your loved one complains of weakness, fatigue, or muscle cramps, don’t wait to get them screened for low potassium. Potassium deficiency is a common problem that affects most adults. It usually isn’t severe, but is important to treat it nonetheless. 

Eating a potassium-rich diet, taking certain medications, and cutting back on alcohol can restore balance to the body and prevent more serious complications.

Have Questions? Contact Us!

Our Caregiving Specialists take calls from family caregivers 24/7. They’re friendly, compassionate, and knowledgeable. If you have questions about your loved one’s diet, we're here to help. Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.