Electrolyte Disturbances

Overview

Electrolytes are important minerals, including sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. 

They perform important functions such as: 

  • Regulating your blood chemistry and the amount of water and in your body. 
  • Controlling muscles.

Electrolytes are stored in very small amounts in the body and have a tiny electrical charge. 

An electrolyte disturbance can be caused by:

  • Severe fluid loss (dehydration) 
  • Excessive sweating (without replacing fluids) 
  • Certain health conditions, such as kidney problems, diabetes, malnutrition, hormone disorders, and heart disease 

It might also occur as a result of treatment for another condition, such as cancer.

Without proper treatment, an electrolyte imbalance may become life-threatening.

Symptoms

You’re at greater risk of developing an electrolyte disturbance if you have:

  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Side effects from certain medications, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy

People with eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa, may also develop electrolyte disturbances. 

Some lifestyle factors that can increase your chance of having an electrolyte imbalance include: 

  • Heavy exercise 
  • Diuretics (water pills) use
  • Chronic excessive alcohol intake

Risk Factors

You’re at greater risk of developing an electrolyte disturbance if you have:

  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Side effects from certain medications, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy

People with eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa, may also develop electrolyte disturbances. 

Some lifestyle factors that can increase your chance of having an electrolyte imbalance include: 

  • Heavy exercise 
  • Diuretics (water pills) use
  • Chronic excessive alcohol intake 

Causes

An electrolyte disturbance may result when your body loses too much fluid. For instance, if you experience vomiting, diarrhea, high fever, or excessive sweating, your electrolyte levels may become unbalanced. 

Other causes of an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Eating an unhealthy diet or having certain stomach disorders that prevent your body from absorbing nutrients.
  • Having kidney disease. Your kidneys regulate the amount of fluid in your body. 
  • Having hormone imbalances.
  • Being treated for other conditions, such as chemotherapy for cancer, antibiotics used to fight infections, or corticosteroids used to reduce inflammation.

Diagnosis

We diagnose an electrolyte disturbance based on your symptoms and a physical exam. In addition, we'll order blood and urine tests (electrolyte panel) to measure the number of electrolytes in your body.

If you’re experiencing other associated problems, such as an irregular heartbeat, mental confusion, or high or low blood pressure, we may order additional tests, such as an X-ray or EKG.

Prevention

To prevent electrolytes from getting too low, it’s important to regularly replace fluids if you:

  • Sweat or are physically active
  • Spend time outdoors on a hot day
  • Have a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea

You don’t need to replace electrolytes with special sports drinks. Drinking water is the best way to replace fluids, unless we specifically recommend that you drink something else.

In addition, be sure to eat a nutritious, healthy diet and keep hydrated. 

Not getting enough fluids is one of the leading causes of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, particularly among the elderly.

Treatments

Treatment depends on which electrolyte is out of balance, whether you have too much or too little of a certain electrolyte, and the severity of the disturbance. 

If you've lost too much fluid and have a low balance of an electrolyte, we recommend you drink plenty of fluids and possibly change your diet. For instance, if you have a low potassium level, we may recommend you eat a diet high in potassium, such as bananas. 

For more severe electrolyte disturbances, we may need to replace fluids and electrolytes through an intravenous (IV) drip. Oral electrolyte supplements may be enough for milder electrolyte disturbances.

When to Call Us

If you think you might have an electrolyte disturbance or have symptoms of dizziness, nausea, fatigue, or muscle twitching or spasms that continue, schedule an appointment with your doctor. 

Call 911 or go to the nearest hospital if you have severe symptoms, such as: 

  • Mental confusion 
  • Seizures
  • Irregular heart rate

If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following:
(1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder.

This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.