What is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

John M. Edge

Electrolytes are salts that conduct electricity in the body. They are present in bodily fluids and tissues, and they must be maintained in the body in a correct ratio to preserve proper functioning of the body's systems. Electrolyte imbalance occurs when that balance is disrupted. This can include having either too much or too little of a particular electrolyte in the body. There are several specific types of electrolyte imbalance that can occur.

Salt pills, which are sometimes used to treat an electrolyte imbalance.
Salt pills, which are sometimes used to treat an electrolyte imbalance.

Hypernatremia occurs when there is too much sodium in the body. There are several potential causes of hypernatremia, including unmanaged diabetes, diuretic drugs, heavy breathing such as in exercise, severe burns, diarrhea, and excess vomiting. The opposite problem, hyponatremia, is when the body has too little sodium. The most common cause for hyponatremia is renal failure.

Use of IV fluids can help dilute an electrolyte in the body.
Use of IV fluids can help dilute an electrolyte in the body.

Hyperkalemia is another type of electrolyte imbalance. Hyperkalemia is the result when the body has an excess of potassium. It is most frequently caused by kidney failure or by drugs that cause the body to retain potassium. Hypokalemia, when the body does not have enough potassium, is often caused by diuretics, because they cause the body to excrete more potassium.

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Excess or deficient calcium is the third common type of electrolyte imbalance. Too much calcium is called hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia is often caused by problems with the thyroid, which controls the amount of calcium in the body, or by certain types of cancer. When the body doesn't have enough calcium, it is called hypocalcemia. Hypocalcemia is also frequently caused by problems with the thyroid gland, a bodywide infection called sepsis, or by a vitamin D deficiency.

There are a variety of symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance. The nature of the symptoms will depend on the type of imbalance. The two symptoms common to all types of electrolyte imbalance are weakness and confusion. High or low sodium levels can produce seizures and paralysis. Having high levels of potassium often produces an abnormal heart rhythm. Too much calcium can produce dehydration, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

There are several treatments available for electrolyte imbalance, depending on the type of imbalance present. Most often, a low level of a particular electrolyte will require the person to be given a supplement of the electrolyte needed. Having too much of an electrolyte is often treated with intravenous (IV) fluids to dilute the amount of the electrolyte in the person's body.

Electrolyte imbalances can be mild and unproblematic or they can be a severe problem. Any electrolyte imbalance that is severe must be treated immediately. In many cases, treating the electrolyte imbalance must be followed by treating the underlying cause.

People who work out need to replenish not only water, but also essential salts and electrolytes lost through sweat.
People who work out need to replenish not only water, but also essential salts and electrolytes lost through sweat.

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