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Fluid and Electrolyte Balance

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What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that have an electric charge when they are dissolved in water or body fluids, including blood. The electric charge can be positive or negative. You have electrolytes in your blood, urine (pee), tissues, and other body fluids.

Electrolytes are important because they help:

  • Balance the amount of water in your body
  • Balance your body's acid/base (pH) level
  • Move nutrients into your cells
  • Move wastes out of your cells
  • Support your muscle and nerve function
  • Keep your heart rate and rhythm steady
  • Keep your blood pressure stable
  • Keep your bones and teeth healthy

What are the different types of electrolytes in your body?

The main electrolytes in your body include:

  • Bicarbonate, which helps maintain the body's acid and base balance (pH). It also plays an important role in moving carbon dioxide through the bloodstream.
  • Calcium, which helps make and keep bones and teeth strong.
  • Chloride, which also helps control the amount of fluid in the body. In addition, it helps maintain healthy blood volume and blood pressure.
  • Magnesium, which helps your muscles, nerves, and heart work properly. It also helps control blood pressure and blood glucose (blood sugar).
  • Phosphate, which works together with calcium to build strong bones and teeth.
  • Potassium, which helps your cells, heart, and muscles work properly.
  • Sodium, which helps control the amount of fluid in the body. It also helps your nerves and muscles work properly.

You get these electrolytes from the foods you eat and the fluids you drink.

What is an electrolyte imbalance?

An electrolyte imbalance means that the level of one or more electrolytes in your body is too low or too high. It can happen when the amount of water in your body changes. The amount of water that you take in should equal the amount you lose. If something upsets this balance, you may have too little water (dehydration) or too much water (overhydration). Some of the more common reasons why you might have an imbalance of the water in your body include:

  • Certain medicines
  • Severe vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Heavy sweating
  • Heart, liver or kidney problems
  • Not drinking enough fluids, especially when doing intense exercise or when the weather is very hot
  • Drinking too much water

What are the different types of electrolyte imbalances?

The names of the different types of electrolyte imbalances are:

Electrolyte Too low Too high
Bicarbonate Acidosis Alkalosis
Calcium Hypocalcemia Hypercalcemia
Chloride Hypochloremia Hyperchloremia
Magnesium Hypomagnesemia Hypermagnesemia
Phosphate Hypophosphatemia Hyperphosphatemia
Potassium Hypokalemia Hyperkalemia
Sodium Hyponatremia Hypernatremia

How are electrolyte imbalances diagnosed?

A test called an electrolyte panel can check the levels of your body's main electrolytes. A related test, the anion gap blood test, checks whether your electrolytes are out of balance or if your blood is too acidic or not acidic enough.

What are the treatments for electrolyte imbalances?

The treatment for an electrolyte imbalance depends on which electrolytes are out of balance, if there is too little or too many, and what is causing the imbalance. In minor cases, you may just need to make some changes to your diet. In other cases, you may need other treatments. For example:

  • If you don't have enough of an electrolyte, you may get electrolyte replacement therapy. This involves giving you more of that electrolyte. It could be a medicine or supplement that you swallow or drink, or it may be given intravenously (by IV).
  • If you have too much of an electrolyte, your provider may give you medicines or fluids (by mouth or by IV) to help remove that electrolyte from your body. In severe cases, you may need dialysis to filter out the electrolyte.

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The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.