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Electrolyte Disorders

What are electrolyte disorders?

An electrolyte disorder occurs when the levels of electrolytes in your body are either too high or too low. Electrolytes are naturally occurring elements and compounds in the body that control important physiologic functions. Examples of electrolytes include:

  • calcium
  • chloride
  • magnesium
  • phosphate
  • potassium
  • sodium

These substances are present in your:

  • blood
  • body fluids
  • urine

They are also ingested with food, drinks, and supplements.

Electrolytes need to be maintained in an even balance for your body to function properly. Otherwise, vital body systems can be affected. Severe electrolyte imbalances can cause serious problems like seizures and cardiac arrest.

Types of electrolyte disorders

Elevated levels of an electrolyte are indicated with the prefix “hyper-.” Depleted levels of an electrolyte are indicated with “hypo-.”

Conditions caused by electrolyte level imbalances include:

  • calcium: hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia
  • chloride: hyperchloremia and hypochloremia
  • magnesium: hypermagnesemia and hypomagnesemia
  • potassium: hyperkalemia and hypokalemia
  • sodium: hypernatremia and hyponatremia

Symptoms of electrolyte disorders

Mild forms of electrolyte disorders may not cause any symptoms. Such disorders can go undetected until they are discovered during a routine blood test. Symptoms usually start to appear once a particular disorder becomes more severe.

Not all electrolyte imbalances cause the same symptoms, but some types share symptoms.

Common symptoms of an electrolyte disorder include:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • fast heart rate
  • fatigue
  • lethargy
  • convulsions or seizures
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • abdominal cramping
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle cramping
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • headaches

Call your doctor if you are experiencing some of these symptoms and suspect you might have an electrolyte disorder.

Causes of electrolyte disorders

Electrolyte disorders are most often caused by a loss of body fluids through prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating. They may also develop due to fluid loss related to burns. Certain medications can cause electrolyte disorders as well. In some cases, underlying diseases are to blame.

The exact cause may vary depending on the specific type of electrolyte disorder.

Calcium

Calcium is a vital mineral that your body uses to stabilize blood pressure and control skeletal muscle contraction. It’s also used to build strong bones and teeth.

Hypercalcemia is when you have too much calcium in the blood. This usually happens due to:

Hypocalcemia is a lack of calcium. The natural aging process is a common cause of calcium deficiency. Your bones begin to thin and become less dense as you age. This reduces the amount of calcium in your bones. Other causes include:

Chloride

Chloride is necessary for maintaining the proper balance of body fluids.

Hyperchloremia occurs when there is too much chloride in the body. This can happen as a result of:

Hypochloremia develops when there is too little chloride in the body. This is often caused by hyponatremia or hypokalemia (too much sodium or potassium, respectively, as discussed below).

Magnesium

Magnesium is a critical mineral that regulates many important functions, such as:

  • muscle contraction
  • heart rhythm
  • nerve function

Hypermagnesemia is categorized by excess amounts of magnesium. This is a rare disorder that primarily affects people with Addison’s disease and end-stage kidney disease.

Hypomagnesemia is characterized by having too little magnesium in the body. Common causes include:

Potassium

Potassium is particularly important for regulating heart function and maintaining healthy nerves and muscles.

Hyperkalemia may develop due to high levels of potassium. This condition can be fatal if left undiagnosed and untreated. It is typically triggered by:

  • severe dehydration
  • kidney failure
  • severe acidosis, including diabetic ketoacidosis
  • certain medications, including some blood pressure medications and diuretics
  • adrenal insufficiency, which is when your cortisol levels are too low

Hypokalemia occurs when potassium levels are too low. This often happens as a result of:

  • eating disorders
  • severe vomiting or diarrhea
  • adrenal gland problems
  • dehydration
  • certain medications, including laxatives, diuretics, and corticosteroids

Hypokalemia can be life-threatening when left untreated.

Sodium

Sodium is needed in the body to maintain fluid balance. It also helps to regulate nerve function and muscle contraction.

Hypernatremia happens when there is too much sodium in the blood. Abnormally high levels of sodium may occur due to:

  • excessive sodium intake from foods and drinks
  • inadequate water consumption
  • severe dehydration
  • excessive loss of bodily fluids as a result of prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, or respiratory illness
  • certain medications, including corticosteroids

Hyponatremia develops when there is too little sodium. Common causes of low sodium levels include:

Risk factors for electrolyte disorders

Anyone can develop an electrolyte disorder. Certain people are more at risk because of their medical history. Conditions that increase risk for an electrolyte disorder include:

Diagnosing electrolyte disorders

A simple blood test can measure the levels of electrolytes in your body. Your doctor may want to perform a physical exam or order extra tests to confirm a suspected electrolyte disorder. These additional tests will vary depending on the condition in question.

For example, hypernatremia can cause loss of elasticity in the skin. Your doctor can perform a pinch test to determine whether hypernatremia is affecting your skin. They may also test your reflexes, as both increased and depleted levels of some electrolytes can affect reflexes.

Treating electrolyte disorders

Treatment varies depending on the type of electrolyte disorder that is present and on the underlying condition.

In general, certain treatments are used to restore the proper balance of minerals in the body. These include:

Intravenous (IV) fluids: Typically sodium chloride, IV fluids can help rehydrate the body. This treatment is commonly used in cases of dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea. Electrolyte supplements can be added to IV fluids to correct deficiencies.

Certain IV medications: These can be used to help your body remove excess electrolytes or protect from their negative effects while they are being removed by another method.

Oral medications: Oral medications can be used to eliminate excess minerals from the body quickly.

Hemodialysis: This is a type of dialysis that uses an artificial kidney to remove waste from your blood. To get the blood to flow to the artificial kidney, your doctor will surgically create a vascular access, or an entrance point, into your blood vessels. This entrance point will allow a larger amount of blood to flow through your body during hemodialysis treatment.

This means more blood can be filtered and purified. Hemodialysis is often used when an electrolyte disorder is caused by kidney disease or kidney damage.

Supplements: Supplements can help replace depleted electrolytes on a short-term basis.

Once the imbalance has been corrected, your doctor will treat the underlying cause.

Preventing electrolyte disorders

Tips

  1. Visit a doctor if you’re experiencing common symptoms of an electrolyte disorder.
  2. If the electrolyte disorder is caused by medications or underlying conditions, your doctor will adjust your medication and treat the cause. This will help prevent future electrolyte imbalances.
  3. Stay hydrated if you’re experiencing prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating.

Read This Next

How to Prevent an Electrolyte Imbalance
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