What is electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte Imbalance
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Electrolyte imbalance: Overview

Electrolytes are minerals in your blood. They include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. When they are not at the right levels, you can feel very ill. You may not know what is causing it, but you know something is wrong. You may feel weak or numb, have muscle spasms, or twitch. Your heart may beat fast. Symptoms are different with each mineral. Too much is as bad as too little.

Minerals help keep your body working as it should. Vomiting, diarrhea, and fever can cause you to lose minerals. A problem with your kidneys can tip a mineral out of balance. So can taking certain medicines.

Your doctor may do more tests. He or she may change your medicine and diet. If you are low in one or more minerals, they may be given through a tube into your vein (I.V.). Your doctor may have you take or drink special fluids or pills. If your kidneys are failing, your blood may be filtered. This is called dialysis. It can put the minerals back in balance.

Electrolytes and electrolyte imbalances

Electrolytes are minerals found naturally in the body, such as potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium. Electrolytes are needed to keep the body's balance of fluids at the proper level and to maintain normal functions, such as heart rhythm, muscle contraction, and brain function.

If the body's electrolytes are not in proper balance, a person may have seizures, an irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness, and other problems. Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by a variety of health conditions, such as chronic heart or kidney disease, endocrine diseases (such as problems with the adrenal, pituitary, thyroid, or parathyroid glands), eating disorders, or bone disorders. Any condition that causes the body to lose too much water (such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or taking medicines called diuretics) can also lead to an electrolyte imbalance.

An oral rehydration solution (ORS) that contains the right balance of electrolytes can be helpful for people who have diarrhea or vomiting, or for athletes who compete in endurance events (such as long-distance cycling or running races). An ORS can come as a liquid that is ready to drink, or as a powder that needs to be mixed with a certain amount of water before drinking. ORS examples include Pedialyte and Vitalyte.

How can you care for your child's electrolyte imbalance?

  • Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with his or her medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • Do not give any medicine without talking to your doctor first. This includes prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medicines.
  • If your child has kidney, heart, or liver disease and has to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids your child drinks.
  • Your doctor or dietitian may give you a diet plan to help balance your child's minerals. Follow the diet carefully.

Electrolyte imbalance: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • Your heartbeat seems to be irregular. It might be speeding up and then slowing down or skipping beats.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have muscle aches.
  • You feel very weak.
  • You are confused or cannot think clearly.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.