An electrolyte imbalance can occur if the body has too much or too little water. Electrolytes are minerals in the blood, tissues, and elsewhere throughout the body. Their name refers to the fact that they have an electrical charge.
Electrolytes are minerals that the body needs to:
- balance water levels
- move nutrients into cells
- remove waste products
- allow nerves to send signals
- enable muscles to relax and contract effectively
- maintain brain and heart functioning
People get electrolytes from food and beverages. The kidneys and liver help maintain electrolyte balance. If a person eats a variety of foods and drinks enough fluids, electrolytes usually stay at the right levels.
Examples of electrolytes in the human body include:
Electrolyte imbalances occur when electrolyte levels become too high or too low, which is a sign of another issue in the body.
Keep reading to learn more about electrolyte imbalances, including the symptoms in various age groups, the causes, and the treatment methods.
The body responds to electrolyte imbalances in various ways. The effects may depend on which electrolyte levels are imbalanced, how severe the issue is, and whether a person has other health conditions.
For instance, low sodium levels in the blood can cause hyponatremia. High sodium levels can result in hypernatremia, which leads to symptoms such as:
Common symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include:
- muscle spasms
- arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat
Severe symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include:
- metabolic acidosis
To self-assess for an electrolyte imbalance, a person can watch out for common symptoms, especially in hot weather or after vomiting, diarrhea, or strenuous physical activity.
To diagnose an electrolyte imbalance, an individual needs to visit a healthcare professional for a laboratory test. Often, a doctor will order a basic metabolic panel test.
Abnormal results will require additional tests to determine the cause. This may include a comprehensive metabolic panel test or an electrolyte panel test. It is important to determine the exact cause in order to decide on an appropriate treatment plan.
Compared with adults, children have a higher risk of dehydration due to their smaller size and faster metabolism of fluids and electrolytes.
If a child sweats excessively or gets sick with severe vomiting or diarrhea, they may develop an electrolyte imbalance that requires medical attention. Other risk factors include having a high fever and taking medications that increase urination.
A child with an underlying health condition — such as thyroid, heart, or kidney disease — may be at a higher risk of an electrolyte imbalance.
Children with cancer who have had a bone marrow transplant or take certain chemotherapy medications are also more susceptible to electrolyte imbalances.
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalances in children include:
- dark urine
- muscle spasms
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heart rate
A parent or caregiver should seek immediate medical care for a child if the child exhibits any of these symptoms, especially if they also have a fever or a health condition.
Older adults may be more susceptible to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances than younger adults.
There are many reasons for this, including the following:
- The kidneys may lose some of their function with age.
- Older adults may take multiple medications, such as diuretics, that can change electrolyte levels.
- Older adults may not get enough to eat or drink due to disability or lack of appetite or thirst or because they do not have regular access to food and drink.
Caregivers should watch older adults closely for signs of dehydration. They may need to help ensure that a person is eating and drinking enough.
Signs of dehydration in an older adult can include:
- dryness of the mouth, including the lips and tongue
- sunken eyes
- skin that seems dry and less firm or stretchy
- confusion or disorientation
- low blood pressure
The following table shows optimal levels of electrolytes for children and adults:
|Sodium||136–145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/l)||136–145 mEq/l|
|Potassium||3.5–5.0 mEq/l||3.6–5.5 mEq/l|
|Calcium||8.8–11.2 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)||9–11 mg/dl|
|Magnesium||1.5–2.5 mEq/l||1.5–2.5 mEq/l|
|Phosphorus||3.6–5.6 mg/dl||3.4–4.5 mg/dl|
An electrolyte imbalance can happen if a person becomes dehydrated or if they have too much water in their body.
Electrolyte imbalances are most often due to:
- not drinking enough fluids
- not eating enough
- excessive sweating
- certain medications, such as laxatives and diuretics
- eating disorders
- liver or kidney problems
- cancer treatment
- congestive heart failure
If a person has been sick with a short bout of vomiting or diarrhea or has been sweating heavily, drinking water or an over-the-counter electrolyte solution can help restore the balance of electrolytes.
Many oral rehydration drinks are available in stores, and they may be sufficient if an individual has a mild imbalance, with no severe symptoms.
Some people have an electrolyte imbalance due to a health condition, such as kidney or heart disease. In this case, a person may be able to correct the imbalance at home over a period of days or weeks. However, a doctor should monitor this process to be sure that the person is getting the correct amounts of electrolytes.
Taking in high levels of electrolytes without a doctor’s guidance can create another imbalance and lead to health complications. Also, some individuals require additional treatment to address the underlying problem.
If a person has a more severe case of kidney disease, they may need dialysis to address an electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolyte imbalances can be dangerous. If an imbalance is severe, a person may need to receive electrolytes intravenously, meaning into a vein and directly into the bloodstream, in the hospital.
If a person believes that they may have mild dehydration, they can try a rehydration drink to rebalance their electrolyte levels.
However, people should be careful about using sports drinks for this purpose. Some experts believe that sports drinks contain too much sugar and too little sodium to correct an imbalance.
A person can make an oral rehydration solution at home instead of buying powder packets or ready-made drinks.
To make an oral rehydration solution:
- Pour 5 cups of water into a pitcher.
- Mix in 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams (g), of sugar and 1 teaspoon, or 4 g, of salt.
- Add in natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup, or fruit juice.
Electrolyte imbalances can cause serious or life threatening symptoms. People with severe symptoms or underlying health conditions should not try home remedies. Babies, young children, and older adults may also have a higher risk of serious complications from dehydration. They should therefore consult a doctor.
Healthy adults with mild dehydration may find that drinking a rehydration solution helps replenish their electrolytes.
However, if a health condition is causing an electrolyte imbalance or if a person has any severe symptoms, they should seek guidance from a doctor.
Older adults, infants, and children should seek professional medical care if they have any symptoms of dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance.