Definition and Overview

Electrolyte imbalance is when a person has either too little or too much of certain minerals (such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium) in his body. It can occur due to many different reasons. Some of the most common are sweating too much, not drinking enough water, and a poor diet. It can also be caused by certain illnesses or occur as a side effect of some medical therapies.

Some people show minor or no symptoms at all. This is especially true if there are no underlying diseases. Such cases are often incidentally found when a person undergoes a routine medical checkup. Simply making changes to one’s diet can treat such cases. Patients are often advised to consume more food that contains the minerals they are lacking or to take supplements. This is often enough to make the symptoms go away.

However, the disorder can be severe if caused by serious medical conditions (such as kidney damage) and traumatic injuries where a person loses too much blood and body fluid. Such cases are treated differently and may require surgery or long-term medical therapy.

Electrolytes help the body by sending electrical impulses that the cells need to communicate with each other. Cells then work and initiate many important body processes. These include regulating the heartbeat and allowing the muscles to contract so a person can move.

When the levels of certain minerals go up or down, a person usually does not experience any symptoms right away. This is because the kidneys try to make adjustments to restore chemical balance in the body. For example, if there is too much fluid, they will make more urine so fluid will not build up. On the other hand, if the body is losing fluid faster than normal, the kidneys will conserve as much water as possible by producing less urine.

Sometimes, the kidneys are able to restore chemical balance. In other times, they fail to do so especially if they are damaged as well.

Causes of Condition

It is but normal for a person to lose minerals on a daily basis. Small amounts are lost each time a person goes to the bathroom or sweat too much. However, this does not cause any problem because the lost minerals can be easily replaced. This can be done by drinking liquids and eating food that contains the said minerals.

The problem begins when the body cannot replace the minerals faster than the body is losing them. An example is when a person loses a lot of blood as a result of a traumatic injury. This can also happen if the organs are not working properly due to certain illnesses, such as certain types of cancers and kidney disease.

Other possible causes are:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • A poor diet that is low in nutrients and minerals

  • Illnesses that cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever

  • Inability to absorb nutrients from food because of digestive problems

  • Taking certain drugs for the treatment of certain illnesses

Key Symptoms

Symptoms depend on the severity of the disorder. For example, a slightly lower sodium levels can cause headaches and nausea. However, if sodium levels reach critical levels, the patient may suffer from seizure, coma, and even death.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

The disorder can be easily diagnosed with:

  • A review of the patient’s medical history and symptoms

  • A thorough physical exam

  • Urine and blood tests

  • Imaging tests

Mild cases rarely require complicated medical procedures and long-term therapies. Often, the measures below are enough to restore mineral balance:

  • Eating a healthy diet - Doctors usually ask patients to provide a list of food they normally eat. Through this, doctors can identify the food that must be removed from the patient’s diet so their symptoms would go away. Switching to a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables can make a huge difference for people with this disorder.

  • Monitoring sodium intake - Too much salt is bad for the health because it holds excess fluid in the body. Thus, it is important for patients to moderate their salt intake.

  • Drinking enough water - Drinking at least eight glasses of water everyday is very good for the health. It is the best way to keep dehydration at bay. Water helps the body flush out toxins before they can cause illnesses.

  • Adjust medications - Doctors also check all the medications that the patient is taking to make sure that they are not causing the symptoms. If they are, the doctor may adjust their dosages or provide patients with substitutes.

  • Take supplements - People who seem not to be getting enough minerals from the food they eat are advised to take supplements.

References:

  • Bockenkamp B, Vyas H. Understanding and managing acute fluid and electrolyte disturbances. Current Paediatrics. 2003;13:520–528.

  • Singal BM, Hedges JR, Succop PA. Efficacy of the stat serum electrolyte panel in the management of older emergency patients. Med Decis Making. 1992;12:52–59.

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