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Electrolyte Deficiency Disorders

What Is an Electrolyte Disorder?

Electrolytes are minerals in your blood and other body fluids that:

  • Keep your body running by sending electrical impulses to cells in your nerves and muscles.
  • Help you hydrate.
  • Manage your blood pressure.
  • Repair damaged tissue.

These minerals include:

  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride

Most people have short-lived changes in electrolyte levels caused by:

  • Sweating during a workout.
  • Repeated vomiting.
  • Chronic diarrhea.

If your levels are routinely too low or too high, you might have an electrolyte disorder.

What causes electrolyte disorders?

Causes include:

  • Kidney damage caused by illness, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Severe vomiting, diarrhea, GI malabsorption.
  • Lifestyle, such as drinking too much water and eating poorly.
  • Inherited genetic conditions.

Some people get electrolyte disorders from medicine they take for other health problems, such as:

  • Ace inhibitors
  • Water pills
  • Cancer drugs
  • Antibiotics
  • Corticosteroids
  • Hormones
  • Excess supplements, such as potassium and calcium

Life-threatening conditions — like shock or severe dehydration — can also cause electrolyte disorders.

Types of electrolyte disorders

Electrolyte disorders have different names based on which mineral is out of balance.

They also use a prefix based on whether the electrolyte level is too high or too low:

  • Hyper means too high.
  • Hypo means too low.

The most common types of electrolyte disorders are:

Mineral Too High Too Low
Sodium Hypernatremia Hyponatremia
Calcium Hypercalcemia Hypocalcemia
Chloride Hyperchloremia Hypochloremia
Magnesium Hypermagnesemia Hypomagnesemia
Phosphate Hyperphosphatemia Hypophosphatemia
Potassium Hyperkalemia Hypokalemia

Electrolyte disorder risks and complications

Mild electrolyte disorders are common in people over 55.

Older adults are at higher risk for these disorders, but young people can also have them.

Your risk is higher if you have any of the following:

  • Kidney disease.
  • Heart failure.
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia.
  • Thyroid problems.
  • Adrenal gland problems.
  • Severe trauma, such as burns or broken bones.
  • Mental or physical decline that often comes with age.

Without treatment, electrolyte disorders can become life-threatening and cause:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures
  • Comas

How to prevent electrolyte disorders

For most healthy people, ways to help prevent an electrolyte imbalance are to:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Include foods with vital minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and chloride.
  • Follow your thirst. Drink water when you 're thirsty to replace lost fluids.

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center, we'll work with you on a treatment plan to help you lead a healthy, better life.

Electrolyte Disorder Symptoms and Diagnosis

Mild electrolyte disorders often don't have any noticeable symptoms.

But moderate cases can sometimes cause:

  • Overheating
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramping or weakness
  • Headache
  • Numbness and tingling

Symptoms of severe electrolyte disorders can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Brain swelling
  • Shock
  • A fast or abnormal heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures

If you think you have an electrolyte disorder or are at higher risk for one, seek diagnosis and treatment right away.

Diagnosing electrolyte disorders

To diagnose an electrolyte disorder, your doctor will:

  • Look at your complete health history. This includes whether you have other conditions, such as high blood pressure or kidney disease.
  • Ask when your symptoms started.
  • Likely draw some blood and urine tests to test your electrolyte levels and kidney function.

They may also:

  • Do a physical exam.
  • Test your reflexes.
  • Order an EKG to check your heart rhythm.

You'll need to tell your doctor:

  • Your eating habits.
  • How much fluid you drink.
  • If you drink alcohol or coffee (and, if so, how much).
  • How much you exercise.
  • Whether you've been sick or prescribed a new medication lately, especially water pills.
  • If anyone else in your family has a history of electrolyte disorders.

Electrolyte Disorder Treatments

Electrolyte disorders are serious and can cause life-threatening symptoms. They may also be a sign of other, more severe illnesses.

At the UPMC Kidney Disease Center, we treat the full range of kidney diseases with special expertise in electrolyte disorders.

Treatment depends on the type of disorder you have and whether it's due to an underlying condition. We'll work with you to find a reversible cause for your illness and reduce risks of other diseases.

The most common treatments are:

  • Decreasing your fluid intake.
  • Stopping or changing a medicine that affects your electrolytes.
  • Making diet changes, like a potassium-rich diet if you have low potassium.
  • Treating other health problem, like high blood pressure or kidney disease.
  • Giving you medicine by mouth or IV to restore your electrolyte balance.
  • Prescribing you supplements — such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, or phosphate.

Contact the UPMC Kidney Disease Center

To learn more about electrolyte disorders: