Electrolyte Imbalance

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What is electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolytes are essential minerals in your body that are necessary for nerve and muscle function, the body-fluid balance, and other critical processes. They are particles that can carry an electrical charge and are present in your blood, plasma, urine, and other fluids. Electrolytes exist in the form of calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium that can be obtained from fluids, supplements, and foods. For example, bananas are excellent sources of potassium.

The balance of electrolytes is constantly shifting due to fluctuating fluid levels in your body. For example, when you sweat as a result of exercise, hot weather, or illness, some electrolyte levels may be low. Vomiting and diarrhea are other causes of electrolyte imbalances, as they result in excessive fluid loss. You must replenish these fluids and electrolytes in order to prevent dehydration, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by a deficiency or an overabundance of minerals in the body. For example, hyperkalemia and hypercalcemia are indicative of excess amounts of potassium and calcium, respectively, which can disrupt the overall balance and functioning of the nerves, cardiovascular system, and muscles.

Vomiting and diarrhea, excessive heat, and severe illness are causes of electrolyte imbalance that can lead to dehydration. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as low blood pressure, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), sunken eyes, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, and poor skin elasticity.

What other symptoms might occur with electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalances may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.

General symptoms that may occur along with electrolyte imbalance

Electrolyte imbalance may accompany other symptoms affecting your general health including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with electrolyte imbalance

Electrolyte imbalance may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, electrolyte imbalances can cause severe and sometimes life-threatening dehydration. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions

  • Poor skin elasticity

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Sunken eyes

What causes electrolyte imbalance?

The balance of electrolytes is constantly shifting due to fluctuating fluids in your body. For example, when you sweat as a result of exercise, hot weather, or illness, levels of certain electrolytes may be low. Vomiting and diarrhea are other causes of electrolyte imbalances, as they result in excessive fluid loss.

Electrolyte imbalances can also be caused by a deficiency or an overabundance of minerals in the body.

Medical causes of electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by medical conditions including:

  • Addison’s disease (deceased production of hormones by the adrenal glands)

  • Alcoholism, which causes the breakdown of muscle fibers, resulting in potassium being released into the bloodstream

  • Diabetes

  • Diarrhea

  • Heat exhaustion

  • Kidney disease

  • Vomiting

Medication-related causes of electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances may be caused by medications including:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors

  • Calcium supplements

  • Certain hormones that are potassium-sparing (lead to the retention of potassium by the kidneys)

  • Diuretics, which promote fluid excretion by the kidneys

  • Potassium supplements

Serious or life-threatening causes of electrolyte imbalances

In some cases, electrolyte imbalances may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Dehydration

  • Shock

Questions for diagnosing the cause of electrolyte imbalances

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your electrolyte imbalance including:

  • When did you start to experience symptoms?

  • Are you taking any medications such as diuretics or potassium-sparing medications?

  • Have you been exercising or working outdoors in hot weather?

  • Do you drink enough fluids?

  • Do you drink alcohol?

  • Do you have high blood pressure or other chronic conditions that may require medication?

What are the potential complications of electrolyte imbalance?

Because electrolyte imbalances can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Cerebral edema (swelling of the brain)

  • Overheating

  • Seizures or convulsions

  • Shock

  • Unconsciousness and coma

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 1
  1. Fluid and electrolyte balance. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/fluidandelectrolytebalance.html.
  2. Electrolytes. Lab Tests Online. http://www.labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/electrolytes/test.html.
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