Hypokalemia differential diagnosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Eiman Ghaffarpasand, M.D. [2]


Potassium is one of the intracellular cation. Any derangement of potassium serum levels can disturb the transmembrane potential and renders excitable cells (nerve and muscle) hyperpolarized and less excitable. However, cardiac cells don't obey this rule and become hyperexcitable. Potassium regulation is essential to maintain a normal activity in cells. Any imparment in potassium serum levels will have severe consequences on several organs especially the heart and the nervous system.

Differentiating Causes of Hypokalemia

Differentiating the diseases that can cause hypokalemia is as following table:

Diseases Clinical manifestations Para−clinical findings Gold standard Additional findings
Symptoms Physical examination
Lab Findings Imaging
Fatigue Fever Urinary symptoms Blood Pressure Skin lesions Edema ABG Urinalysis Transtubular potassium gradient Urine Potassium:Creatinine Other Ultrasonography CT scan
Polyuria Oliguria Nocturia
Renal and adrenal disorders Loop diuretic use[1] +/− + +/− + Metabolic alkalosis K+ > 7 >20mEq/g Na+ History of medication use
Primary hyperaldosteronism[2] + + + Facial flushing Metabolic alkalosis K+, ↓Na+ PRA, ↑PAC, ↓Na+ Unilateral adrenal hyperplasia Hypodense unilateral adrenal macroadenoma (>1 cm)  PAC:PRA ratio Mood disturbance, paresthesia, muscle cramps
Cushing syndrome[3] + +/− +/− Facial plethora, purple striae + Metabolic alkalosis Glucosuria BS Unilateral adrenal hyperplasia Urinary free cortisol (24−hour) Dorsicocervical fat pad, obesity, hirsutism
Hemodialysis[4] +/− +/− +/− Normal Pustular lesions Metabolic alkalosis Normal Na+ History Carpal tunnel syndrome
Bartter syndrome[5] + + +/− Normal or ↓ Metabolic alkalosis K+, ↑Ca+2, ↑Cl- Laboratory findings Mental retardation, sensorineural hearing loss
Gitelman syndrome[6] + + + Normal Metabolic alkalosis K+, ↓Ca+2, ↑Cl- Laboratory findings Growth retardation, tetany, muscle cramp
Liddle syndrome[7] +/− +/− Metabolic alkalosis K+, ↓Na+ PRA, ↓PAC Laboratory findings Pseudohyperaldosteronism
Gastrointestinal disorders GI bleeding[8] + + Normal Normal < 3 < 20 mEq/g Anemia Laboratory findings Orthostatic hypotension, bradycardia
Vomiting[9] + + Metabolic alkalosis Cl- <20 mEq/L Laboratory findings Dry mucous membranes, lethargy
Severe diarrhea[10] + + Metabolic alkalosis K+<20 mEq/L Laboratory findings Dry mucous membranes, lethargy
Villous adenoma[11] + + Normal K+ and Cl- <20 mEq/L Anemia Colonoscopy Hematochezia
VIPoma[12] + +/− + Facial flushing, skin rash + Normal K+<20 mEq/L Stool osmolar gap <50 mOsm/kg Endoscopic ultrasound for VIPomas of 2−3 mm Pancreatic VIPomas >3 cm Laboratory findings Weight loss
Neuropsychiatric disorders Primary polydipsia[13] + + Normal +/− Normal Urine osmolarity Na+ Water restriction test Psychosis
Central diabetes insipidus[14] + + + Normal or ↓ Normal Urine osmolarity Na+ Water restriction test Ischemic encephalopathy
Bulimia nervosa[15] +/− Normal or ↓ Asteatotic skin Carotenodermia Normal K+, ↓Cl- Psychological interview  Parotid gland enlargement, lanugo−like hair
Anorexia nervosa[16] + +/− Xerosis, hair effluvium Normal K+, ↓Cl- Psychological interview Orthostatic hypotension, bradycardia
Hypokalemic periodic paralysis[17] + +/− Normal or ↓ +/− Metabolic alkalosis K+<20 mEq/L Thyrotoxicosis, ↓Mg+, ↓PO4-3 Laboratory findings Paralytic episodes, arrhythmias
Systemic diseases Hypothermia[18] +/− Normal Frostbite Normal Normal Clinical findings Impaired mental state
Alcoholism[19] + +/− + + Normal or ↓ Icterus, caput medusae + Metabolic alkalosis Ketonuria Anemia Clinical findings Digital clubbing, gynecomastia
Diabetic ketoacidosis[20] + +/− + + Xerosis Metabolic acidosis Ketonuria ↑Serum ketone, ↑ blood glucose Laboratory findings Dry mucous membranes, shock
Hypomagnesemia[21] + +/− Normal +/− Metabolic alkalosis Ca+2 Laboratory findings Trousseau and Chvostek signs
Burns[22] +/− + Vesicle and bullae, erythema + Normal Acute phase reactant Clinical findings Dehydration
Cystic fibrosis[23] +/− +/− +/− Early aquagenic skin wrinkling +/− Normal - Pulmonary infiltration Sweat chloride test Pancreatic insufficiency


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