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What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them?

What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them?

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an electric charge. They are in your blood, urine, 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, make sure that your nerves, muscles, the heart, and the brain work the way they should. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes.

The levels of electrolytes in your body can become too low or too high. This 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).

Understanding electrolyte disorders

Electrolytes are elements and compounds that occur naturally in the body. They control important physiologic functions.

An electrolyte disorder occurs when the levels of electrolytes in your body are either too high or too low.

Severe electrolyte imbalances can cause serious problems such as coma, seizures, and cardiac arrest. Mild forms of electrolyte disorders may not cause any symptoms. Such disorders can go undetected until they’re discovered during a routine blood test.

Symptoms usually start to appear once a particular disorder becomes more severe. Not all electrolyte imbalances cause the same symptoms, but many share similar symptoms.

They may also develop due to fluid loss related to burns. Certain medications can cause electrolyte disorders as well. In some cases, underlying diseases, such as acute or chronic kidney disease, are to blame. The exact cause may vary depending on the specific type of electrolyte disorder. Elevated levels of an electrolyte are indicated with the prefix “hyper-.” Depleted levels of an electrolyte are indicated with “hypo-.”

What Are Some Different Types of Electrolyte Disorders?


Occurs due to a lack of adequate calcium in the bloodstream.

Chloride Imbalances

Chloride is necessary for maintaining the proper balance of bodily fluids. Hyperchloremia occurs when there’s too much chloride in the body. Hypochloremia develops when there’s too little chloride in the body.

Magnesium Imbalances

Magnesium is a critical mineral that regulates many important functions, such as:

  • muscle contraction
  • heart rhythm
  • nerve function
  • and more

Hypermagnesemia means excess amounts of magnesium. This disorder primarily affects people with Addison’s disease and end-stage kidney disease.

Hypomagnesemia means having too little magnesium in the body.

Discovering Electrolyte Imbalance

Your doctor may want to perform a physical exam or order extra tests to confirm a suspected electrolyte disorder. These additional tests will vary depending on the condition in question.

For example, hypernatremia (too much sodium) can cause loss of elasticity in the skin due to significant dehydration. Your doctor can perform a pinch test to determine whether dehydration is affecting you.

An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), an electrical tracing of your heart, may also be useful to check for any irregular heartbeats, rhythms, or ECG or EKG changes brought on by electrolyte problems.

Treatment varies depending on the type of electrolyte disorder and on the underlying condition that’s causing it. In general, certain treatments are used to restore the proper balance of minerals in the body.

Electrolyte supplements can be added to IV fluids to correct deficiencies. IV medications can help your body restore electrolyte balance quickly. They can also protect you from negative effects while you’re being treated by another method. The medication you receive will depend on the electrolyte disorder you have.

Resolving Mineral Abnormalities

Oral medications and supplements are often used to correct chronic mineral abnormalities in your body. This is more common if you’ve been diagnosed with ongoing kidney disease.

Depending on your electrolyte disorder, you may receive medications or supplements such as calcium (gluconate, carbonate, citrate, or lactate magnesium oxide potassium chloride phosphate binders, which include sevelamer hydrochloride (Renagel), lanthanum (Fosrenol), and calcium-based treatments such as calcium carbonate. They can help replace depleted electrolytes on a short- or long-term basis, depending on the underlying cause of your disorder.

Although some of the supplements can be purchased over the counter, most people with electrolyte disorders get a prescription for supplements from their doctor. Hemodialysis is a type of dialysis that uses a machine to remove waste from your blood. One way to get the blood to flow to this artificial kidney is for your doctor to surgically create a vascular access, or an entrance point, into your blood vessels.

Do You Think You May Be Suffering From An Electrolyte Imbalance?

Contact us here at Hillandale Primary Care right away! We can get you tested and get you back on the road to good health right away.