Electrolyte disorders occur when the balance of electrolytes in the body is too high or too low. Electrolytes are naturally occurring minerals and elements that support critical physiological functions. Urine, blood, and other bodily fluids contain electrolytes.
Electrolytes help manage blood pressure, send electrical impulses to nerve and muscle cells, and fix damaged tissue. They also keep the body hydrated, especially in times of high physical stress, like during exercise. Types of electrolytes include:
Maintaining the proper electrolyte balance is important. These minerals and elements perform essential tasks, so an electrolyte imbalance can cause issues in the nervous system, heart, blood, or bones.
Most people can balance electrolytes through their diet, but certain events will trigger an imbalance. This will cause an electrolyte disorder. The cause of electrolyte disorders varies based on which electrolyte is imbalanced. As such, each electrolyte will have its own section outlining what exactly it controls and what might prompt an electrolyte disorder.
Phosphate works closely with calcium to influence a myriad of important bodily functions. The intestines, kidneys, and bones help balance phosphate levels. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to phosphate: hyperphosphatemia and hypophosphatemia.
Hyperphosphatemia, or high levels of phosphate, can occur as a result of serious muscle injury or abuse of laxatives that contain phosphate. Chronic kidney disease, underactive parathyroid glands, low calcium levels are also known to cause a phosphate imbalance.
Hypophosphatemia, or low levels of phosphate, can occur as a result of overactive parathyroid glands, low Vitamin D levels, severe burns, and alcohol abuse.
Calcium helps manage blood pressure and skeletal muscle contraction. This mineral supports strong teeth and bone development. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to calcium: hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia.
Hypercalcemia, or high levels of calcium, can occur as a result of hyperparathyroidism, kidney disease, and some types of cancer, including breast and lung cancers. Additionally, overuse of calcium or Vitamin D supplements, overuse of antacids, and some medications, including theophylline and lithium, can cause a calcium imbalance.
Hypocalcemia, or low levels of calcium, can occur as a result of hypoparathyroidism, kidney failure, pancreatitis, prostate cancer, and a Vitamin D deficiency. Some medications, including antiepileptic medications, osteoporosis medications, and heparin, can also cause chronically low calcium levels.
Chloride controls bodily fluids. It maintains the correct amount of fluid inside and outside the body’s cells, and it influences blood pressure, blood volume, and pH of the bodily fluids. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to chloride: hyperchloremia and hypochloremia.
Hyperchloremia, or high levels of chloride, can occur as a result of dialysis, kidney failure, and severe dehydration. Hypochloremia, or low levels of chloride, can occur as a result of issues with potassium or sodium, acute kidney failure, eating disorders, cystic fibrosis, and scorpion stings.
Magnesium plays an important role in regulating heart rhythm, muscle contraction, and nerve function. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to magnesium: hypermagnesemia and hypomagnesemia.
Hypermagnesemia, or high levels of magnesium, can occur as a result of end-stage kidney disease and Addison’s disease. Hypomagnesemia, or low levels of magnesium, can occur as a result of chronic diarrhea, heart failure, malnutrition, alcohol abuse, and some medications, including specific types of antibiotics and diuretics.
Potassium is an integral part of regulating heart function. It also promotes healthy muscles and nerves. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to potassium: hyperkalemia and hypokalemia.
Hyperkalemia, or high levels of potassium, can be fatal if left untreated. Hyperkalemia can occur as a result of severe acidosis, including diabetic ketoacidosis, adrenal insufficiency, or low cortisol levels, and kidney failure. Additionally, severe dehydration and some medications, including specific types of blood pressure medications and diuretics, can cause high levels of potassium.
Hypokalemia, or low levels of potassium, can occur as a result of severe diarrhea, severe vomiting, dehydration, eating disorders, and some medications, including corticosteroids, diuretics, and laxatives.
Sodium helps the body control fluid balance. It is essential for bodily functions of all kinds, including muscle contraction and nerve function. There are two types of electrolyte disorders related to sodium: hypernatremia and hyponatremia.
Hypernatremia, or high levels of sodium, can occur as a result of severe dehydration and low water consumption. This is typically a result of an intense loss of bodily fluids due to sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, or respiratory illness. Some medications, including corticosteroids, can also cause high levels of sodium.
Hyponatremia, or low levels of sodium, can occur as a result of overhydration, heart failure, liver failure, kidney failure, malnutrition, and fluid loss due to burns or sweating. Some medications, including seizure medications and diuretics, can also cause hyponatremia.
Mild electrolyte disorders might not present any symptoms at all. Symptoms will usually start to appear once an electrolyte disorder becomes more severe. Electrolyte disorders will present differently based on which electrolyte is imbalanced, but many cause similar symptoms.
Common electrolyte disorder symptoms include:
Electrolyte disorders can affect anyone. However, some groups are at a more increased risk of developing an electrolyte disorder. Risk factors or groups for electrolyte disorders include people who have had:
Typically, doctors can detect electrolyte disorders through routine blood tests. A doctor might want to order extra tests or conduct a physical exam to determine the exact cause. Extra tests could include:
Treatment depends largely on which type of electrolyte disorders someone has. There are several treatments that doctors use to treat general electrolyte imbalances, including:
For most people, lifestyle changes can help prevent electrolyte disorders. These lifestyle changes include:
Yes, see a doctor immediately if any symptoms of an electrolyte disorder begin to appear. Some electrolyte disorder supplements and medications are available over the counter, but most require a prescription. Seek medical attention for any unfamiliar symptoms. Fast-acting intravenous treatments can quickly correct mild electrolyte imbalances.
Electrolyte disorders are largely preventable for healthy people. Many electrolyte disorders are mild and easily treatable, but they can progress in severity. People who have an electrolyte disorder and a comorbidity, such as kidney disease, are at increased risk of developing severe symptoms. Some groups, including babies, younger children, and seniors, might experience more severe cases of electrolyte disorders.
Doctors can help people with electrolyte disorders create a time-sensitive treatment plan that reflects the severity of the imbalance. An intravenous or oral medication can treat mild to moderate electrolyte disorders. People experiencing severe symptoms should not try to remedy the imbalance at home. Electrolyte disorders can be fatal but are not always life-threatening.