Electrolyte Imbalance – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Electrolyte imbalance

Electrolytes such as sodium and magnesium perform important functions in the body’s cells. One speaks of an electrolyte disorder when the electrolytes found in a blood analysis are increased or decreased. Consequences may vary depending on the exact disorder, as well as treatment and therapy prospects.

What is an electrolyte imbalance?

The electrolytes present in the body are bicarbonate, calcium , chloride, potassium , magnesium , sodium and phosphate . The normal level of the individual electrolytes is different. For example, sodium is balanced at around 100g in a normal-weight person and there are around 25g of magnesium in a healthy person. Calcium, which is responsible for building bones and teeth and is an important component of them, is present in the human body at around 1.1 kg.

The naming of the present electrolyte disorder is as follows: The name begins with the prefix hyper or hypo as a definition of the elevated or lowered level. The name of the electrolyte is found in the stem of the word, the term suffix is ​​always -emia, i.e. blood. -Aemia is added because the diagnosis of the disorder is based on a blood test , but the disease is always present throughout the body.

Examples of the correct designation are therefore hypernatremia and hyponatremia and hypercalcemia or hypocalcemia, the most common electrolyte disorders.


The causes of electrolyte deficiencies vary, but if the amount is too low, it can usually be assumed that the electrolyte in question is not being sufficiently absorbed. The reasons for this can be an incorrect or one-sided diet, a manifest eating disorder and insufficient fulfillment of a need increased by stress , sport or pregnancy.

Other possible causes include chronic bowel disease, alcohol and drug use that confuses electrolyte metabolism, kidney disease, and metabolic disease . Cancer is rarely identified as the cause.

The causes of an oversupply of electrolytes are also diverse and depend on the specific electrolyte disorder. It is always based on a disturbed metabolism of the electrolyte in question, as can occur, for example, in the case of tumors, family predisposition, organ damage or an overdose of the electrolyte. Determining the exact cause is important in order to be able to initiate adequate therapy.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

In any case, an electrolyte imbalance has a negative effect on the health of the person concerned and can lead to various symptoms and complications. As a rule, however, the symptoms and complaints are very much dependent on the exact deficiency symptoms, so that no general prediction can be made here. However, those affected often suffer from sensory disturbances or paralysis.

Pain and cramps in the muscles can also occur and make everyday life of the person affected significantly more difficult. This also leads to twitching in the muscles and often to increased irritability of the patient. The electrolyte imbalance can also lead to general weakness and fatigue , so that those affected appear exhausted and no longer actively participate in everyday life.

Furthermore, the patient’s heart can also suffer from these complaints, resulting in cardiac arrhythmia which, in the worst case, can also lead to the patient’s death. In some cases, the electrolyte disturbance also has a negative effect on the senses, resulting in disturbances in smell or taste. This also significantly reduces the patient’s quality of life.

Diagnosis & History

The diagnosis of an electrolyte disorder first requires a detailed medical history, in which the patient and the attending physician discuss the symptoms present. The symptoms described in the event of an undersupply are clear and give the doctor important information about the presence of an electrolyte disorder. It can be problematic that diffuse symptoms occur when there is an oversupply, including poor performance , tiredness and rapid physical exhaustion .

In order to verify the suspicion of an electrolyte disorder, to specifically name the disorder and to be able to initiate appropriate treatment, the doctor must take a blood sample. All electrolyte levels can be determined in the laboratory with a simple blood draw and compared with the level defined as the norm. For example, the magnesium level should be 0.7 to 1 mmol/l, the calcium level 2 to 2.8 mmol/l and the sodium level 130 to 150 mmol/l.

A mild form of electrolyte imbalance is harmless, but as the disease progresses, severe symptoms, edema and, if left untreated, death can result.

When should you go to the doctor?

In most cases, an electrolyte imbalance is not something that requires urgent treatment. It often runs symptom-free, especially in the case of a slight deficiency, and is at best discovered by an incidental finding. Harmless cases can often be treated with a balanced diet or the temporary use of over-the-counter dietary supplements from pharmacies, drugstores or health food stores without the need for a doctor’s visit.

However, there are cases where medical advice is important. If, for example, a lack of potassium leads to cardiac arrhythmia, the doctor must record the current potassium level in order to ensure that substitution is made as needed. This is necessary because an overdose of potassium can be dangerous for the patient.

A visit to the doctor is also often helpful in the case of iron deficiency, for example to find out and treat a cause that requires gynecological treatment or bleeding in the stomach or intestines. The control of the iron level or any necessary infusions are only possible with a doctor.

Chronic diarrhea or other intestinal problems are often the cause of an electrolyte imbalance. The doctor can help here too. Basically it is better to treat the cause than to take magnesium or other minerals again and again to treat the symptoms. In this context, it is also important that older people and pregnant patients, due to their special life situation, better consult their doctor before taking in electrolytes on their own.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment of the electrolyte disorder depends on the one hand on the specific disorder, on the other hand on the severity and cause. If you have a mild electrolyte imbalance, a change in diet and, if necessary, taking chemical electrolytes over a period of time are the right choices. On the other hand, if the underlying diseases are the cause, they must primarily be treated in order to be able to permanently regulate the under- or oversupply.

The treatment options for sodium and calcium disorders are presented below as examples. The drug of choice in hypernatremia is oral or intravenous increase in fluid intake under controlled conditions.

Hyponatremia, on the other hand, is treated with slow and controlled fluid withdrawal and/or increased sodium chloride intake through food or IV fluids. Vitamin D is administered to support hypocalcaemia in long-term treatment. Symptomatic treatment can help alleviate the acute symptoms.

Outlook & Forecast

In the case of a mild electrolyte imbalance, the prognosis is usually good. A change in diet can easily compensate for an existing deficiency or oversupply of electrolytes. Medical treatment is not mandatory for these patients. If the food intake is consistently maintained, the symptoms will be relieved after just a few days.

If the change in food is not enough, an artificial supply of electrolytes will help if a deficiency is detected. These can easily be purchased in pharmacies and used regularly. In most cases, you will be free of symptoms within a short period of time. A regular check-up should then take place, as the electrolyte imbalance can occur again at any time.

Medical treatment is required for severe electrolyte imbalance. A large number of patients suffer from an underlying disease that needs to be diagnosed and treated. Electrolyte imbalance in these patients is a symptom of another disease. The prognosis of the underlying disease must be assessed individually.

If the cause is cured, the electrolyte imbalance disappears at the same time. This means that these patients make a full recovery. If the underlying disease cannot be cured, long-term therapy must be expected. Without medical care, the patient with a severe lack of electrolytes is threatened with premature death.


The electrolyte imbalance caused by diseases cannot be counteracted. The prevention of nutrition-related under- or oversupply, on the other hand, is possible with a balanced diet.


In the case of an electrolyte disorder, the options for aftercare are very limited in most cases. First and foremost, a comprehensive examination with subsequent treatment must be carried out in order to prevent further complications. The earlier the electrolyte imbalance is detected, the better the further course of this disease will usually be.

In most cases, the underlying disease must be treated first in the electrolyte imbalance. For this reason, follow-up care focuses primarily on preventing the recurrence of the underlying disease. In many cases, those affected are also dependent on taking medication and other drugs or vitamins in order to completely alleviate the symptoms of the electrolyte imbalance.

When taking medication, the person concerned should always ensure that the medication is taken regularly and correctly in order to completely relieve the symptoms. Furthermore, the support and help from friends and family can be very helpful with the electrolyte imbalance and support those affected in their everyday lives.

Changing your diet can also be very helpful and contribute to an improvement in symptoms. In many cases, contact with other people affected by this disease is also worthwhile, as this can lead to an exchange of information.

You can do that yourself

Electrolyte imbalances mean that there is too little or too much of a specific electrolyte or electrolytes in the body. The disordered electrolyte balance can be based on a metabolic disorder, on an unusually high consumption, for example in the case of severe fluid loss and prolonged stressful situations , or on a very unbalanced diet . As a rule, it is a matter of a relative deficiency of a certain electrolyte, which manifests itself through non-specific, but also through specific symptoms.

Self-help measures consist of ensuring that the corresponding electrolyte is replenished in the event of an electrolyte deficiency. For example, it is a matter of recognizing situations with increased electrolyte consumption or an increased excretion rate due to continuous physical exertion at high outside temperatures from the outset and to ensure a corresponding balance of fluids including electrolytes prophylactically.

Since the concentration of individual electrolytes cannot be checked everywhere during everyday life, it is helpful to pay attention to specific symptoms. Calcium deficiency manifests itself in cramps, sensory disturbances and increased irritability.

Muscle cramps, cardiac arrhythmia and weakness are typical of a potassium deficiency . Excessive sweating, cramps, and muscle twitching typically indicate magnesium deficiency , and zinc deficiency can cause smell and taste disorders, acne, and nail discoloration.

If deficiencies of a certain electrolyte occur despite a normal diet and without any other obvious reasons, the causes should definitely be investigated in order to be able to treat them specifically.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.