Electrolyte Disorders

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on June 10, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

What Are Electrolyte Disorders?

Electrolyte disorders result in an imbalance of minerals in the body. For the body to function properly, certain minerals need to be maintained in an even balance. Otherwise, vital body systems, such as the muscles and brain, can be negatively affected.

Electrolytes refer to minerals that include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium. They are present in your blood, body fluids, and urine. They are ingested with food, drink, and medicines and supplements.

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Types of Electrolyte Disorders

Elevated levels of an electrolyte begin with the prefix “hyper-“.  Depleted levels of an electrolyte begin with “hypo-“.

Conditions caused by electrolyte level imbalances include:

  • Calcium: hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia
  • Chloride: hyperchloremia and hypochloremia
  • Magnesium: hypermagnesemia and hypomagnesemia
  • Phosphate: hyperphosphatemia and hypophosphatemia
  • Potassium: hyperkalemia and hypokalemia
  • Sodium: hypernatremia and hyponatremia

What Causes Electrolyte Disorders?

Each electrolyte disorder may be caused by several conditions. The most common cause is medication. They can also be caused by trauma from burns or broken bones. Diseases such as cancer and thyroid disorders are also sometimes to blame

The most common causes of electrolyte disorders are:

Calcium

  • Hypercalcemia: Too much calcium. Causes include: hyperparathyroidism (overactive parathyroid gland); cancer; kidney disease; excessive use of calcium supplements and antacids. A genetic disorder called familial hypocalciuric hypercalcemia can also be the cause.
  • Hypocalcemia: Too little calcium. Causes include: kidney failure; thyroid disorders; vitamin D deficiency; medications like heparin.

Chloride

  • Hyperchloremia: Too much chloride. Causes include: severe dehydration; kidney failure; hemodialysis.
  • Hypochloremia: Too little chloride. This occurs concurrently with other electrolyte disorders, specifically hyponatremia and hypokalemia.

Magnesium

  • Hypermagnesemia: Too much magnesium. This is a rare disorder that can occur in people with Addison’s disease and end-stage renal disease.
  • Hypomagnesemia: Too little magnesium. Causes include: chronic alcoholism; malnutrition; malabsorption issues; digestive system disorders; chronic diarrhea; excessive sweating; medications like diuretics and cyclosporine; and certain antibiotics.

Phosphate

  • Hyperphosphatemia: Too much phosphate. Causes include: broken bones; kidney disease; intestinal obstructions; hypoparathyroidism.
  • Hypophosphatemia: Too little phosphate. Causes include: hypomagnesemia; hypokalemia; severe burns; traumatic injuries; chronic alcoholism; kidney disease; hypothyroidism; malnutrition; prolonged diuretic use. 

Potassium

  • Hyperkalemia: Too much potassium. This can be fatal if left undiagnosed and untreated. Causes include: heart attack; kidney failure; fasting; intestinal bleeding; medications such as lithium, beta blockers, and diuretics.
  • Hypokalemia: Too little potassium. Causes include: eating disorders; severe vomiting or diarrhea; kidney disease; adrenal gland problems; severe dehydration; medications such as laxatives, diuretics, and penicillin are also sometimes the cause. Like hyperkalemia, hypokalemia can be life threatening if left untreated. 

Sodium

  • Hypernatremia: Too much sodium. Causes include: excessive sodium intake from food and drink; inadequate water consumption; dehydration; excessive loss of bodily fluids (from vomiting, diarrhea, or severe burns); medications like corticosteroids and blood pressure medication.
  • Hyponatremia: Too little sodium. Causes include: excessive sweating; water intoxication; kidney disease can cause this imbalance; diuretics; illicit drugs. .

Who Is at Risk for an Electrolyte Disorder?

Anyone can develop an electrolyte disorder. Some people are more likely to because of their personal health history. For example, people with kidney disease might develop several electrolyte disorders. This is because their kidneys are not able to filter the minerals as well as healthy kidneys.

Other conditions that increase a person’s risk include:

  • alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver
  • congestive heart failure
  • eating disorder
  • kidney disease
  • trauma (such as severe burns or broken bones)
  • thyroid and parathyroid disorders

What Are the Symptoms of an Electrolyte Disorder?

Mild forms of electrolyte disorders may cause no symptoms. The disorder can go undetected until it’s stumbled upon during a routine blood test. If the disorders become more severe, symptoms might start to appear. Not all imbalances cause the same symptoms. Each type of electrolyte disorder can cause an array of symptoms. However, several of the disorders share many of the same symptoms.

Common symptoms of an electrolyte disorder include:

  • dark urine (a sign of dehydration)
  • irregular heartbeat
  • fatigue
  • lethargy
  • convulsions or seizures
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • bowel irregularities (including diarrhea and constipation)
  • abdominal cramping
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle pain
  • changes in mood and/or coherence (irritability, confusion, depression)
  • headache

Diagnosing an Electrolyte Disorder

A blood test can measure the level of electrolytes and minerals in the blood. Doctors can perform a physical exam or order additional tests to confirm a suspected electrolyte disorder.

For example, hypernatremia can cause loss of elasticity in the skin. A doctor can perform a pinch test to see if the disorder is affecting the skin. Doctors may also test reflexes. Both increased and depleted levels of some electrolytes can affect reflexes.

Treating an Electrolyte Disorder

Treatment depends both on which disorder a patient has and what the underlying problem is that causes the imbalance in the first place.

Treatments that may be used to restore balance:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids can help rehydrate the body. This is common in cases of dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea. IV fluids can also deliver medications to help flush excess minerals from the blood and bodily fluids.
  • Oral medications can be used to flush excess minerals from the body quickly.
  • Hemodialysis can remove excess waste from the blood. This is common when the disorder is caused by kidney disease or kidney damage.
  • Supplements can help replace depleted electrolytes on a short-term basis.

Once the imbalance has been corrected, a doctor will treat the underlying cause. This will prevent future electrolyte imbalances.

Get More Information About Hypercalcemia

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