Symptoms and Signs of Electrolytes

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Medically Reviewed on 1/27/2022

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:

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:

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.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.