Diseases and Disorders

What is Electrolyte Imbalance or Electrolyte Disorder?

Last updated on January 21st, 2023 at 11:58 am

Electrolyte imbalance occurs when there isn’t enough sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, or chloride in the body. It can be caused by dehydration, a poor diet, excessive sweating, or illness.

Electrolytes are minerals found in our bodies that help regulate fluid balance, nerve function, muscle contraction, and blood pressure. They also play an important role in maintaining healthy bones and teeth.

Electrolyte imbalance symptoms include fatigue, cramps, nausea, headache, dizziness, confusion, irritability, muscle weakness, and fainting.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolyte Imbalance – All humans need electrolytes to survive. Many automatic processes in the body rely on a small electric current to function, and electrolytes provide this charge.

Electrolytes interact with each other and the cells in the tissues, nerves, and muscles. A balance of different electrolytes is vital for healthy function.

Electrolyte Imbalance or Electrolyte Disorder

An electrolyte disorder occurs when the levels of electrolytes in your body are too high or too low. Electrolytes are naturally occurring elements and compounds in the body. They control important physiologic functions.

  • calcium
  • chloride
  • magnesium
  • phosphate
  • potassium
  • sodium

These substances are present in your blood, bodily fluids, and urine. They’re also ingested with food, drinks, and supplements.

Electrolytes need to be maintained in an even balance for your body to function properly. Otherwise, vital body systems can be affected. Severe electrolyte imbalances can cause serious problems like coma, seizures, and cardiac arrest.

Types of Electrolytes

Electrolyte imbalance occurs when there is too much or not enough sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, bicarbonate, phosphate, or other electrolytes in the body.


Calcium is a vital mineral that your body uses to stabilize blood pressure and control skeletal muscle contraction. It’s also used to build strong bones and teeth.

Hypercalcemia is when you have too much calcium in the blood. This usually happens due to:

Hypocalcemia is a lack of adequate calcium in the bloodstream. Causes can include:


Chloride is necessary for maintaining the proper balance of bodily fluids.

Hyperchloremia occurs when there is too much chloride in the body. This can happen because of:

Hypochloremia develops when there is too little chloride in the body. This is often caused by sodium or potassium problems. Other causes can include:

  • cystic fibrosis
  • eating disorders, such as anorexia
  • scorpion stings
  • acute kidney injury


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

  • muscle contraction
  • heart rhythm
  • nerve function

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

Hypomagnesemia means having too little magnesium in the body. Common causes include:

  • alcohol use disorder
  • malnutrition
  • malabsorption
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • excessive sweating
  • heart failure
  • certain medications, including some diuretics and antibiotics


Potassium is important for regulating heart function. It also helps maintain healthy nerves and muscles.

Hyperkalemia may develop because of high levels of potassium. This condition can be fatal if left undiagnosed and untreated. It’s typically caused by:

Hypokalemia occurs when potassium levels are too low. This often happens because of:

  • eating disorders
  • severe vomiting or diarrhoea
  • dehydration
  • certain medications, including laxatives, diuretics, and corticosteroids


Sodium is needed in the body to maintain fluid balance and is critical for normal body function. It also helps to regulate nerve function and muscle contraction.

Hypernatremia happens when there is too much sodium in the blood. Abnormally high levels of sodium may occur due to:

  • inadequate water consumption
  • severe dehydration
  • excessive loss of bodily fluids because of prolonged vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, or respiratory illness
  • certain medications, including corticosteroids

Hyponatremia develops when there is too little sodium. Common causes of low sodium levels include:

  • excessive fluid loss through the skin from sweating or burns
  • vomiting or diarrhoea
  • poor nutrition
  • alcohol use disorder
  • overhydration
  • thyroid, hypothalamic, or adrenal disorders
  • liver, heart, or kidney failure
  • certain medications, including diuretics and seizure medications
  • syndrome of inappropriate secretion of antidiuretic hormone (SIADH)


The kidneys, bones, and intestines work to balance phosphate levels in the body. Phosphate is necessary for a wide variety of functions and interact closely with calcium.

Hyperphosphatemia can occur due to:

  • low calcium levels
  • chronic kidney disease
  • severe breathing difficulties
  • underactive parathyroid glands
  • severe muscle injury
  • tumour lysis syndrome, a result of cancer treatment
  • excessive use of phosphate-containing laxatives

Hypophosphatemia can be seen in:

  • acute alcohol abuse
  • severe burns
  • starvation
  • vitamin D deficiency
  • overactive parathyroid glands
  • certain medication use, such as intravenous (IV) iron treatment, niacin, and some antacids

Symptoms of Electrolyte Disorder

Electrolyte imbalance is one of the most common causes of fatigue and weakness. It can be caused by dehydration, over-training, inadequate nutrition, or illness.

Mild forms of electrolyte disorders may not cause any symptoms. Such disorders can go undetected until they are discovered during a routine blood test. Symptoms usually appear once a particular disorder becomes more severe. Not all electrolyte imbalances cause the same symptoms, but many share similar symptoms.

15 Common symptoms of an electrolyte disorder include;
  1. irregular heartbeat
  2. fast heart rate
  3. fatigue
  4. lethargy
  5. convulsions or seizures
  6. nausea
  7. vomiting
  8. diarrhoea or constipation
  9. abdominal cramping
  10. muscle weakness
  11. muscle cramping
  12. irritability
  13. confusion
  14. headaches
  15. numbness and tingling

Causes of Electrolyte Disorder

Electrolyte disorders are most often caused by a loss of bodily fluids through prolonged vomiting, diarrhoea, or sweating. They may also develop because of fluid loss related to burns. Certain medications can cause electrolyte disorders as well. Sometimes, underlying diseases are to blame.

The exact cause may vary depending on the specific type of electrolyte disorder.

Risk factors for electrolyte disorder

Anyone can develop an electrolyte disorder. Certain people are more at risk because of their medical history. Conditions that increase the risk for an electrolyte disorder include:

  1. alcohol use disorder
  2. cirrhosis
  3. congestive heart failure
  4. kidney disease
  5. eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
  6. trauma, such as severe burns or broken bones
  7. thyroid and parathyroid disorders
  8. adrenal gland disorders

Electrolyte Test

A simple blood test can measure the levels of electrolytes in your body.

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A blood test that looks at your kidney function is also important as well. 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. Consult your doctor.

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

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