The fluid and electrolyte balance of your body must be maintained to keep your muscles, brain and nerves functioning properly. Learn about conditions and drugs that can upset this balance and how a patient with an imbalance is cared for.
If you scoop up a cup of water from the ocean, it will look much like the fresh water that comes out of your kitchen faucet. Yet we all know that ocean water contains salt.
The salt in ocean water is needed for the different sea creatures to survive. The water in your body, like ocean water, contains salt and other dissolved minerals. The electrically charged minerals found in your body fluids are called electrolytes. When they’re out of balance, your health and survival are threatened. In this lesson, you’ll learn about fluid and electrolyte imbalance within the body.
There are many electrolytes in your body. Some of the most important are sodium, potassium, calcium, chloride, magnesium, and phosphate. Your body must maintain the most appropriate concentrations of these electrolytes in order for your muscles, brain, nerves and other body processes to function properly. If the concentration of one electrolyte gets too high or too low, we say that it’s ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo.’ For instance, if calcium levels get too high, it creates a condition called hypercalcemia. If calcium levels get too low, it results in hypocalcemia. Variations in electrolyte levels sometimes go by their Latin names, which can be a bit more to remember.
For example, the Latin word ‘kal’ signifies potassium. So, hyperkalemia is the term used to describe abnormally high concentrations of potassium, and hypokalemia means abnormally low concentrations of potassium.
There are different reasons why electrolyte concentrations can become imbalanced. Because electrolytes are dissolved in body fluids, we see that dehydration is a possible cause. When there’s less body water, the concentration of an electrolyte increases. For instance, hypernatremia, which is having too much sodium, can result if you don’t drink enough water, or you lose excessive amounts of water through vomiting, diarrhea, or severe burns. When you sweat excessively, you lose both water and salt.
If you only replenish the lost fluid without actively replenishing the lost electrolytes, you could dilute sodium in the body, leading to hyponatremia, or too little sodium. Many commercial sports drinks promise to replace water and electrolytes.Certain medications can upset your fluid and electrolyte balance.
For example, diuretics are drugs that increase the frequency of urination. Diuretics help a person with high blood pressure get rid of retained fluids, but also influence the fluid and electrolyte balance of the body.We also see that kidney problems can cause imbalances. Your kidneys are the organs that filter blood fluids and electrolytes. So, any condition involving the kidneys can throw off the balance of fluid and electrolytes in the body. Other conditions that could result in an imbalance include certain cancers, thyroid disorders, diabetes, eating disorders, alcoholism, and congestive heart failure.
Fluid and electrolyte imbalances can manifest in a number of different ways.
Mild imbalances may produce no symptoms, and only be revealed thanks to a routine blood test. If the imbalance progresses, a person’s muscle and nerve function could malfunction. This could lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, pain, or an irregular heartbeat. Because fluid and electrolyte balance is important to brain function, a person with an imbalance might experience a change in mood or confusion. Other symptoms could develop due to an imbalance including nausea, bowel irregularity, abdominal cramps, or seizures.
Treating a person with an electrolyte disorder varies depending on which electrolyte is out of balance. However, care is always directed toward the same outcome, which is to restore balance. Intravenous (IV) fluids are a quick and efficient way to replace fluids lost from things like vomiting and diarrhea. An IV can also be used to restore electrolytes that might be too low. Oral medications may be used to replenish lost electrolytes, or to help the body get rid of excess fluid or electrolytes. Supplements may be recommended to replenish low electrolyte levels over time.
If a condition, such as a kidney disorder causes the imbalance, the patient’s medical team will work to correct the underlying problem to prevent a relapse.
Let’s review. Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals found in your body fluids. If concentrations of electrolytes get too high or too low, it can interfere with the proper function of your muscles, brain, nerves, and other body processes. You learned that hypercalcemia is the term used to describe when calcium levels get too high, and hypocalcemia results when calcium levels get too low. Hyperkalemia describes abnormally high concentrations of potassium, and hypokalemia means abnormally low concentrations of potassium. Hypernatremia means having too much sodium, and hyponatremia is too little sodium.
Causes of fluid and electrolyte imbalances include dehydration, diuretics, kidney problems, cancers, thyroid disorders, diabetes, eating disorders, alcoholism, and congestive heart failure. If symptoms manifest, they may present as fatigue, weakness, pain and irregular heartbeat, change in mood, confusion, nausea, bowel irregularity, abdominal cramps or seizures. Treatment is aimed at restoring balance. This may require the use of intravenous (IV) fluids, oral medications, or supplements.