Doctor's Notes on Electrolytes
Electrolytes are small chemicals that are used in critical cellular processes to allow cells to maintain their stability to generate energy and to augment the function of many cellular metabolites. There are five major electrolytes, and when they are abnormal or out of balance, they can produce symptoms and signs as follows:
- Sodium (Na); hypernatremia (too much) and hyponatremia (too little) may produce symptoms of lethargy, confusion, weakness, swelling, seizures, coma, and/or death
- Potassium (K); hyperkalemia -- life-threatening heart rhythm problems, and kidney failure; hypokalemia -- heart arrhythmias, muscle cramps, weakness, and constipation
- Calcium (Ca); hypercalcemia -- kidney stones, abdominal pain, depression, and heart rhythm disturbances; hypocalcemia -- weakness, muscle spasms, and heart rhythm disorders
- Magnesium (Mg); hypermagnesemia -- heart rhythm disturbances, muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting, and breathing difficulties; hypomagnesemia -- heart rhythm abnormalities, muscle cramps and weakness, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures
- Bicarbonate (HCO3); low bicarbonate -- a fruity or acetone breath, warm dry skin, abdominal pain, increased urination, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and hyperventilation; high bicarbonate levels -- shortness of breath, anorexia, dehydration, weak muscles, high blood pressure, thin skin, acne, and weight gain (Cushing's syndrome)
There are many causes of electrolyte imbalances. This is due to constant fluctuation of fluids in the body. It is also influenced by exercise, hot weather, and illnesses that include vomiting and diarrhea. Failure to hydrate your body adequately with fluids that contain electrolytes may contribute to electrolyte balances. Diet may play a role (for example, adding too much salt [Na] to foods). In addition, there are both medical and medication-related causes of electrolyte imbalances.
Medical causes of electrolyte imbalances include the following:
Medication-related causes of electrolyte imbalances may include the following:
- Calcium supplements
- Potassium supplements
- Hormone treatments the are potassium-sparing
- Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors)
What Are the Treatments for Unbalanced Electrolytes?
There are two major treatments for electrolytes that are unbalanced: home remedies and IV solutions administered and monitored in a hospital. Both methods may be utilized depending on the severity of the imbalance and the person's underlying medical condition.
- Home remedies (mild imbalances only; no severe symptoms)
- Over-the-counter oral rehydration drinks
- Infrequently, some individuals need to reduce water drinking due to electrolyte dilution.
- Home-made rehydration (1 liter of water, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 tablespoons of sugar)
- Diet changes (low salt foods, low or high calcium-containing foods, depending on the imbalance)
- You may occasionally need to have your doctor recheck your electrolyte levels and to also see if you need more or less medicine that affects electrolyte levels in the kidney.
- IV electrolytes (in hospital or some clinics)
- Can increase or decrease electrolytes relatively quickly
- Used to control electrolyte levels in the body and manage symptoms, while addressing underlying problems
Symptoms of a severe electrolyte imbalance is treated as a medical emergency.
Food Portion Distortion : Correct Serving Size QuizQuestion
A bagel 20 years ago was 3 inches in diameter and had 140 calories. How many calories do you think are in today's bagel?See Answer
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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.