Electrolyte Disorders

What are electrolyte disorders?

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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:

  • Phosphate
  • Calcium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Sodium

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.

What causes electrolyte disorders?

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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.

What are symptoms of electrolyte disorders?

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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:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Fast heart rate
  • Tingling
  • Numbness


Are there any risk factors or groups for electrolyte disorders?

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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:

  • Kidney disease
  • Adrenal gland disorders
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia nervosa
  • Cirrhosis
  • Alcoholism
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Certain types of acute trauma, including broken bones or burns

How are electrolyte disorders diagnosed?

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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:

How are electrolyte disorders treated?

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Treatment depends largely on which type of electrolyte disorders someone has. There are several treatments that doctors use to treat general electrolyte imbalances, including:

  • Intravenous fluids. Sodium chloride boosts hydration and intravenously treats cases of dehydration. Doctors might add electrolyte supplements to intravenous fluids in an effort to rebalance electrolytes.
  • Intravenous medications. These are fast-acting medications that can correct electrolyte imbalances. Intravenous medications are typically used in tandem with other treatment methods. Common intravenous medications include potassium chloride, gluconate, and magnesium chloride.
  • Oral supplements and medications. Chronic electrolyte disorders usually require the use of oral supplements and medications. Many of these oral supplements and medications require a prescription. Common supplements and medications include potassium chloride, calcium, magnesium oxide, and phosphate binders.
  • Hemodialysis. This process removes waste from the bloodstream using a machine. Hemodialysis is usually required when sudden kidney damage occurs and other treatment methods are not working.

What are lifestyle changes that could help with electrolyte disorders?

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For most people, lifestyle changes can help prevent electrolyte disorders. These lifestyle changes include:

  • Staying hydrated. The amount of water each person needs varies. Make sure to drink enough water throughout the day, especially before and after physical activity.
  • Having a sports drink if a workout lasts longer than 30 minutes. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes that help restore the body after a rigorous workout.
  • Eating a healthy diet. Focus on foods with important minerals, including chloride, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.

Should you see a doctor for electrolyte disorders?

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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.

What is the outlook for people living with electrolyte disorders?

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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.