Electrolytes are chemicals and minerals that enter your body through the food, drinks, medications and other supplements you consume. The most common electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Electrolytes are broken down during digestion and are used to regulate the flow of water to your cells, keep your body hydrated, rebuild tissue and send nerve impulses to signal your body to perform various activities.
Electrolyte levels fluctuate based on your diet, certain medications, conditions including kidney disease, cardiovascular, thyroid or adrenal disorders, rapid fluid loss and dehydration and physical activity. Elevated or reduced electrolyte levels can impact your cardiovascular, digestive, muscular and nervous systems. In order to maintain balance, your kidneys and hormones work together to filter and remove excess amounts from your body. An imbalance can impact your health when a particular electrolyte reaches a level that is too high or too low for your body to regulate. Imbalances become more common as you age, when your kidney function begins to decline.
Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance vary based on the electrolyte and whether it is too high or too low. Common electrolyte imbalances include:
Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium) — may be caused by an overactive parathyroid gland, kidney disease, prolonged or excessive use of antacids and certain genetic factors
Hypocalcemia (low levels of calcium) — may be caused by kidney failure, thyroid disorders, vitamin D deficiency or certain medications
Hyperkalemia (high levels of potassium) — a potentially fatal condition if left untreated, which may be the result of serious health concerns like a heart attack, kidney failure or intestinal bleeding
Hypokalemia (low levels of potassium) — may occur following rapid fluid loss caused by vomiting or diarrhea, severe dehydration, kidney disease, eating disorders, adrenal gland conditions and certain medications. As with high levels of potassium, if left untreated, hypokalemia can be life-threatening
Hypernatremia (high levels of sodium) — may be caused by increased salt consumption, inadequate free water intake or dehydration and excessive fluid loss
Hyponatremia (low levels of sodium) — may be caused by increased sweating or dehydration, excessive free water intake, prolonged diuretic use, certain anti-depressant medications or hypothyroidism (when your thyroid gland produces too little of the thyroid hormone)
Symptoms vary depending on the type of imbalance, however, common symptoms include:
- Changes with your blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat
- Digestive changes including diarrhea or constipation
- Headaches, mental confusion or irritability
- Muscle pain or weakness
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Stomach pain and cramping
- Urinary changes including frequency and appearance
If an imbalance is suspected, your doctor can order a blood test to measure your electrolyte levels. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam which may include a “pinch” test to check your skin’s elasticity and your reflexes for signs of an imbalance.
Treatment for an electrolyte imbalance depends upon the cause and severity of the issue. Low levels may be treated with supplements to return electrolyte levels within a normal range over time. In more severe cases, you may need to be hospitalized and monitored while your electrolyte levels are restored. Intravenous (IV) fluids and oral medications may be given to help rehydrate your body and remove excess minerals from your body quickly. If the imbalance is the result of kidney disease or another health condition, it is important to maintain a well-balanced diet to keep your levels under control. Staying hydrated and drinking plenty of fluids, including sports drinks containing electrolytes following strenuous physical activity, helps restore balance and replaces the electrolytes you lost through sweat.
Once your electrolyte levels have been restored, your doctor will continue to monitor your levels and develop a treatment plan to reduce your risk of future imbalances. If you are experiencing symptoms that may be caused by an electrolyte imbalance, consult with your primary care provider. If you have an imbalance that is related to a chronic health condition like kidney disease, heart failure or a thyroid issue, you may be referred to a specialist who can help you select a treatment plan that best fits your needs.
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