What Can Cause Electrolyte Imbalance?

The human body requires an equal balance of electrolyte levels for optimum functioning. However, some situations can cause electrolytes in the body to become too low or too high, resulting in an imbalance and compromising essential functioning.

You can manage mild electrolyte imbalance at home with electrolyte replacement. Still, severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to life-threatening problems such as seizures, acute weakness, bone diseases, high blood pressure, and cardiac arrest. As a result, monitoring the electrolyte balance and fluid intake in the body is vital.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals in the body that are electrically charged and govern critical actions. Electrolytes in the body include calcium, chloride, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and bicarbonate. They transform into positive and negative ions when dissolved in water or other liquid (for example, blood). These ions are in charge of adequately operating all neurons and nerve cells.

Electrolytes, for example, are required for regular muscle contractions, including the muscles of your heart. If you have electrolyte disturbances, it can impact how your nerves communicate throughout your body. They are essential for keeping your blood ph from being overly acidic or alkaline.

Calcium, for example, is essential for blood clotting and bone health. Electrolytes are also necessary for ensuring that adequate water remains inside cells and that not too much water exits the body.

What is electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalance, commonly referred to as electrolyte disorders, is abnormalities in electrolyte levels in body fluids. Excessively high or extremely low electrolytes impair cell function by changing cellular potential and can result in various consequences, some of which can be fatal.

Types of electrolyte imbalances

Your body works hard to maintain a particular concentration of electrolytes in your blood. For example, if an electrolyte level is excessively high, the kidney may try to excrete more of it in your urine. Electrolytes that are too high or too low might cause problems.

When the concentration of a particular electrolyte falls outside the normal range, this is referred to as an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolyte imbalances can create difficulties with various body systems, and in severe cases, they can be fatal.

Hyponatremia, or low sodium levels in the blood, is one of the most common electrolyte imbalances. Other types are:

  • High sodium (hypernatremia)
  • Potassium abnormalities (hypokalemia or hyperkalemia)
  • Calcium abnormalities (hypercalcemia or hypocalcemia)
  • Magnesium imbalances (hypermagnesemia or hypomagnesemia)

You can detect low phosphate levels in the blood in people with vitamin D deficiency, hyperparathyroidism, and refeeding syndrome. After meal reintroduction, this potentially lethal illness produces unexpected fluid and electrolyte imbalances in malnourished people. Hypoparathyroidism and chronic kidney disease, on the other hand, can produce hyperphosphatemia.

Electrolyte imbalances are an issue in the body, but they are also frequent indicators of other problems in the body. As a result, they serve a significant role in identifying a wide range of medical disorders. A person may have more than one kind of electrolyte that is out of range at any given moment.

Electrolyte imbalances are persistent in the elderly and the critically ill.

Signs and symptoms of electrolyte imbalance

The symptoms vary depending on the specific electrolytes involved and the degree of the imbalance.

Some possible symptoms, depending on the situation, might include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Frequent urination
  • Constipation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle cramps or muscle weakness
  • Poor coordination when walking
  • Bone pain

Electrolyte imbalance can be fatal if severe, causing cardiac rhythm irregularities, seizures, coma, and death.

On the other hand, Electrolyte disorders may not create any symptoms. This is especially likely if the imbalance is minor or has developed gradually.

In those with major medical issues, electrolyte imbalances increase the risk of complications and death.

What causes electrolyte imbalance?

A variety of factors can cause electrolyte imbalances. You are in danger of electrolyte imbalances if you lose a lot of body fluids. For example, excessive sweating with extended activity may result in an imbalance. Fluid loss through severe vomiting, diarrhea, and severe burns are all causes of electrolyte issues.

Conditions that produce excessive water gain may also cause electrolyte abnormality. Someone with congestive heart failure, for example, may be more vulnerable. Additionally, if a person drinks a lot of water (overhydration), they may have an electrolyte imbalance.

Other causes include:

  • Kidney problems
  • Liver problems
  • Lung problems
  • Sepsis
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Problems with the gastrointestinal tract
  • Alcohol and illicit drug use
  • Inappropriately given intravenous fluids
  • Recent trauma or surgery
  • Side effects of medications (like diuretics)

How is electrolyte imbalance diagnosed?

A simple blood test can be used to diagnose an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are typically examined in groups with other electrolytes and lab results.

These blood tests, however, do not reveal why a person has an electrolyte imbalance. Sometimes the diagnosis can be clear when they take the electrolyte test. Other times, an additional inquiry may be required. This might include more blood testing, medical imaging, or other diagnostic procedures.

A person may require additional monitoring if they have a significant electrolyte imbalance. To check for any cardiac rhythm issues, examining using an electrocardiogram (ECG) could be crucial.



A primary contributor to an electrolyte imbalance frequently is dehydration. To fix this, one must stay hydrated with an electrolyte drink, sports drink, or take intravenous fluids if it’s a severe electrolyte imbalance. Tailwind Nutrition drink mixes are a great example of electrolyte drinks that can help fix the mild imbalance.

On the other hand, if the individual is dehydrated to the point of being overhydrated, they may need to cut back on their fluid intake and perhaps even take diuretics (to help them get rid of extra fluid via their urine).

Treatment of underlying health conditions

Treatment depends on the underlying health condition. After the underlying medical issues are treated, the imbalance frequently disappears. This can be the sole intervention required in patients with a mild imbalance.

For instance, untreated type 1 diabetes may lead someone to have an imbalance. In this situation, receiving insulin therapy and other treatments might assist in redressing the imbalance.


After receiving therapy for heart, kidney, and liver conditions, checking the body’s electrolyte balance may be necessary. After the therapy, electrolyte testing will be necessary, especially in the event of renal issues. 

People in the critical care unit frequently have their electrolytes evaluated daily due to this population’s prevalence of electrolyte abnormalities.