Can Mom's blood work show something serious?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother is 72 and became diabetic four years ago. She has struggled with maintaining her blood sugar. Her health plan has her going to a clinic every three months for blood work to ensure she is managing her blood levels. Her most recent appointment's blood work showed her with low potassium and low white blood levels. Two weeks earlier she had an extreme case of diarrhea which lasted for a week. They plan to monitor her potassium and white blood cells, but I am curious whether these are potential early signs of something more serious. What symptoms should we be on the lookout for?

Expert Answer

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

Diabetes is sometimes difficult to manage, so I am glad to hear that your mother is going to a clinic that is monitoring her so closely. Regarding her abnormal bloodwork results, potassium levels can definitely go low when someone has bad diarrhea. Other causes of low potassium include too much insulin (her blood sugars would be really low too), medications (like water pills), and vomiting. Now that her diarrhea is better, this potassium problem should resolve.

As for her white cells being low, that can sometimes occur with bad infections. The usual causes of low white counts include cancers, immune disorders, and severe infections. Perhaps her diarrhea was from a gastrointestinal virus, and that caused her white count to drop. I would let the clinic monitor it, and see what happens. If her white count stays low for another month or so, it could be a symptom of another problem. Good luck!