Hypernatremia is the medical term used to describe having too much sodium in the blood. Sodium is an important nutrient for proper functioning of the body. Most of the body’s sodium is found in the blood. It’s also a necessary part of the body’s lymph fluids and cells.

In many cases, hypernatremia is mild and doesn’t cause serious problems. However, in order to prevent or reverse problems caused by hypernatremia, it’s important to correct high sodium levels.

Read on to learn more about the role of sodium and when high levels may result in a medical emergency.

Hypernatremia can occur when there is a too much water loss or too much sodium gain in the body. The result is too little body water for the amount of total body sodium.

Changes in water intake or water loss can affect the regulation of the concentration of sodium in the blood. Changes in fluid can be caused by:

  • dramatic changes in thirst
  • changes in urine concentration

In healthy people, thirst and urine concentration are triggered by receptors in the brain that recognize the need for fluid or sodium correction. This normally results in increased water intake or changes in the amount of sodium passed in the urine. That can rapidly correct hypernatremia.

The main symptom of hypernatremia is excessive thirst. Other symptoms are lethargy, which is extreme fatigue and lack of energy, and possibly confusion.

Advanced cases may also cause muscle twitching or spasms. That’s because sodium is important for how muscles and nerves work. With severe elevations of sodium, seizures and coma may occur.

Severe symptoms are rare and usually found only with rapid and large rises of sodium in the blood plasma.

Older adults are at an increased risk for hypernatremia. That’s because as you grow older, you’re more likely to have a decreased sense of thirst. You may also be more prone to illnesses that affect water or sodium balance.

Certain medical conditions also increase your risk for hypernatremia, including:

Hypernatremia is often diagnosed through blood tests. Urine tests can also be used to identify high levels of sodium along with urine concentration. Both blood and urine tests are fast, minimally invasive tests that require no preparation.

Hypernatremia tends to develop as a result of underlying conditions. Other tests depend on your medical history and additional symptoms.

Hypernatremia can occur rapidly (within 24 hours) or develop more slowly over time (more than 24 to 48 hours). The speed of onset will help your doctor determine a treatment plan.

All treatment is based on correcting the fluid and sodium balance in your body. Rapidly developing hypernatremia will be treated more aggressively than hypernatremia that develops more slowly.

For mild cases, you may be able to treat the condition by increasing your fluid intake. For more severe cases, you’ll likely be connected to an IV drip. That’s used to intravenously supply fluid to your blood. Your doctor will also monitor you to see if your sodium levels are improving, and they may adjust your fluid concentration accordingly.

The outlook for hypernatremia is generally very good. This is especially true if the condition is found early, or if underlying problems are corrected or controlled.

Hypernatremia can often be treated outside the hospital. If hospitalization is needed, close monitoring helps ensure a healthy outcome.