Electrolyte imbalance: symptoms, causes, diagnosis and


Electrolyte imbalances, such as high or low blood levels of sodium , potassium , and calcium , can cause many different health problems. In severe cases, these imbalances can lead to serious and even life-threatening problems. Electrolyte disturbances are also used to diagnose a wide range of medical problems.

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Understanding electrolytes

Electrolytes are particles that have a positive or negative charge. These minerals dissolve in body fluids. They play a key role in many important physiological processes in every cell in your body.

For example, electrolytes are essential for the proper contraction of muscles, including the muscles of the heart. If you have low levels of electrolytes, it can affect the way your nerves transmit signals in your body. They are very important to prevent the blood from becoming too acidic or too alkaline. Certain electrolytes, such as calcium, are key to blood clotting and bone health. Electrolytes are also important to ensure that enough water remains inside the cells and that too much water is not excreted from the body.

Electrolytes are found naturally in many foods and beverages. Certain electrolytes are also added to certain sports drinks that are advertised to replenish when needed (for example, after strenuous exercise). Most people get enough electrolytes from the food they eat, but certain circumstances can cause these electrolytes to break down.

Some of the most important electrolytes in the body are:

  • Sodium (Na + )
  • Potassium (K + )
  • Calcium (Ca ++ )
  • Magnesium (Mg ++ )
  • Chloride (Cl )
  • Bicarbonate (HCO 3 )
  • Phosphate (PO 4 3- )

Types of electrolyte imbalance

Your body works hard to keep your blood electrolyte levels within a certain concentration. For example, if the level of a certain electrolyte is too high, the kidneys may try to release it in the urine. Problems can arise if electrolyte levels are too high or too low. This is called an electrolyte imbalance when the concentration of a particular electrolyte is outside the normal range. Electrolyte imbalances can cause problems with many different body systems, which can even be life-threatening if they are severe.

One of the most common electrolyte imbalances is hyponatremia , a low level of sodium in the blood. Other particularly important types are elevated sodium levels (hypernatremia), potassium abnormalities (hypokalemia or hyperkalemia ), calcium abnormalities (hypercalcemia or hypocalcemia), and magnesium imbalances (hypermagnesemia or hypomagnesemia) .

The prefix "hypo" refers to low levels and "hyper" refers to high levels of a particular electrolyte.

An electrolyte imbalance in itself can cause problems, but it is often an indicator of other problems in the body as well. For this reason, they play an important role in the diagnosis of many different diseases. Sometimes a person may have more than one type of electrolyte that is outside the normal range.

Electrolyte imbalances are especially common in the elderly and critically ill .

Electrolyte imbalance symptoms

Symptoms vary depending on the specific electrolytes and the degree of imbalance.

Depending on the situation, some potential symptoms may include :

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Frequent urination
  • Constipation
  • Incrise of cardiac frecuency
  • Muscle cramps or muscle weakness
  • Poor coordination when walking.
  • Bone-ache

In severe cases, electrolyte imbalances can cause very serious problems, such as abnormal heart rhythms, seizures , coma, and death.

However, electrolyte imbalances may not cause any noticeable symptoms. This is especially true if the imbalance is moderate or if the imbalance occurs gradually.

Electrolyte imbalances also increase the risk of complications and death in people who already have serious medical conditions .


There are many different causes of electrolyte imbalance. Anytime you lose a lot of fluid from your body, you risk some electrolyte imbalance. For example, prolonged exercise with a lot of sweating can lead to imbalances. Vomiting, diarrhea, and severe burns are causes of fluid loss, which can lead to electrolyte imbalances .

Conditions that cause excessive water buildup can also lead to other types of electrolyte imbalances. For example, a person with congestive heart failure may be at higher risk. Another example: sometimes people can have an electrolyte imbalance if they drink large amounts of water.

Other possible causes include :

  • Kidney problems
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Liver problems
  • Lung problems
  • Cancer
  • Septicemia
  • Recent injury or surgery
  • IV fluids administered incorrectly
  • Side effects of medications (such as diuretics)
  • Consuming alcohol and illegal drugs.

Problems with certain hormones, such as antidiuretic hormone (ADH), parathyroid hormone (PTH), or aldosterone, can also cause electrolyte imbalances. This could be due to a problem in the gland that makes the hormone or in the part of the brain that regulates the hormone. In some cases, inadequate dietary electrolyte intake can predispose a person to electrolyte imbalances. Sometimes it is impossible to determine the specific cause of electrolyte imbalances.


Diagnosis of electrolyte imbalances can be done with a simple blood test. Electrolytes are generally tested as a group along with other electrolytes and additional key lab values.

For example, many of your electrolytes can be monitored during a series of blood tests called a metabolic reference panel, or as part of a more complete set of tests called a complete metabolic panel . These tests can tell you if you have an electrolyte imbalance in a specific electrolyte, such as sodium .

However, these blood tests do not tell why a person has an electrolyte imbalance. Sometimes this can be relatively obvious. In other cases, additional investigation may be required for detection. This could mean additional blood tests, medical imaging, or other diagnostic steps.

Electrolytes are often tested when a person has symptoms but has not yet been diagnosed. For example, weakness is a potential symptom of some electrolyte imbalance. Your doctor may order an electrolyte test to check for imbalances.

They are sometimes tested as part of the follow-up of people who have certain medical conditions that can disrupt electrolytes. These can include diseases that affect the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, heart, endocrine system, or lungs. You may need to monitor them regularly if you are taking medications that can alter electrolyte levels, such as a diuretic .

When assessing the underlying causes of electrolyte imbalances, it is helpful to look at the grouped electrolytes. That is why it is usually done as part of a group. When used together, certain electrolyte imbalances can indicate problems in certain parts of the body. Also, problems with some electrolytes can cause problems with other electrolytes. For example, low magnesium levels can be the main cause of low calcium levels .

If a person has a severe electrolyte imbalance, they may need other types of monitoring. For example, it may be important to check an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check for heart rhythm problems .

Watch out

Treat an underlying medical problem

Treatment for electrolyte imbalances will depend on the underlying medical problem. Electrolyte problems often go away after the underlying condition is treated. This may be the only intervention needed, especially in people with relatively mild imbalances.

For example, someone may have an electrolyte imbalance due to untreated type 1 diabetes . In this case, insulin treatment and other treatments can help correct the imbalance. If you have a hypercalcemia problem due to a parathyroid problem, you may need surgery .

It is also important to identify any medications that may be contributing to the problem. You may need to switch to another type of medicine.

Eliminate dehydration or overhydration.

If dehydration is part of the cause, the person may need IV fluids. On the other hand, if a person is overhydrated, they may need to limit their fluid intake and possibly take diuretics (to help them get rid of excess fluid in the urine) .

Electrolyte regulation

Some people may also need electrolyte supplements for a limited period of time. It can be given orally or through an IV tube. In certain circumstances, a person may be advised to take extra electrolytes by focusing on certain foods in their diet.


After treatment, you will need to see if the problem goes away on its own. This will require repeated electrolyte tests. Because electrolyte imbalances are so common in people in intensive care, these people are often tested for many of their electrolytes on a daily basis .


Drinking beverages with extra electrolytes can be beneficial for those who are losing a lot of fluids. For example, a child who loses a lot of fluids through vomiting or diarrhea may benefit from drinking with electrolytes to prevent dehydration. Your pediatrician's office can advise you when it might be helpful.

Many people are also familiar with electrolyte drinks that are advertised for resistance training. While these foods can replace some of the electrolytes and fluids lost during sweating, many of them also contain quite a bit of sugar. They can be useful for some athletes during long sessions. However, often only water is needed. Hydrating before starting a workout is a good way to prevent problems. It's also important to note that drinking too much fluids (water or commercial electrolyte drinks) can also lead to electrolyte imbalances.

Taking your medications exactly as prescribed can also help reduce your risk of electrolyte imbalance. In general, taking steps to manage your underlying health condition (if applicable) can reduce your risk of electrolyte imbalances later in life.

Get the word of drug information

Electrolyte disturbances are very common in many different diseases. They are often easy to treat, but sometimes they indicate very serious problems. Feel free to ask your doctor about the source and treatment of your electrolyte imbalance.

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