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Electrolytes

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KEY POINTS

  • Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity, move fluid in and out of the cells, help carry nutrients into the cells and waste products back out, regulate nerve and muscle function, keep the correct amount of fluid in the body, balance the amount of acid in the blood, and help rebuild damaged tissue. Your child gets electrolytes from the food and liquids your child eats and drinks.
  • The level of one or more electrolytes in the blood can get too high or too low, leading to an imbalance. This may be a mild problem or could be life-threatening.
  • If levels are too high, the treatment will depend on the cause of the excess. Low levels are normally treated by giving the needed electrolyte.

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What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. Electrolytes move fluid in and out of the cells. They help carry nutrients into the cells and waste products back out. They regulate nerve and muscle function, keep the correct amount of fluid in the body, balance the amount of acid in the blood, and help rebuild damaged tissue. Your child gets electrolytes from the food and liquids your child eats and drinks.

Common electrolytes in the human body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphate

What is an electrolyte imbalance?

The level of one or more electrolytes in the blood can get too high or too low, leading to an imbalance. Electrolytes are lost through sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting. The most common imbalances are of sodium and potassium.

Symptoms depend on which minerals are out of balance.

High levels of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium can cause symptoms such as:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Numbness
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Muscle spasms or twitching
  • Seizures

Low levels of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium can cause symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness
  • Weak muscles or muscle cramps
  • Numbness or tingling around your child’s mouth or in the feet and hands
  • Feeling skipped heartbeats or a rapid heart rate
  • Depression
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Very dry mouth
  • Memory loss

More serious symptoms of very high or very low levels can include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially if there is too much fluid in the body
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there)
  • Coma
  • Death

Several things can cause an electrolyte imbalance, including:

  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Not drinking enough liquid when exercising
  • Ongoing vomiting or diarrhea
  • Poor diet
  • Severe dehydration
  • Cancer treatment
  • Diuretics (water pills)
  • Bulimia, an eating problem that causes a child or teen to eat large amounts of food, and then purge by vomiting or taking laxatives

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s medical history, including symptoms and possible risk factors, and your child will have a physical exam. Your child may have blood tests.

How is electrolyte imbalance treated?

If levels are too high, the treatment will depend on the cause of the excess. For example, medicine is used to treat calcium or potassium levels that may get too high in people with kidney disease. Low levels are treated by giving the needed electrolyte.

You can replace fluids and electrolytes with an oral rehydration solutions (ORS). An ORS is a mixture of fluids, minerals, sugar, and salts that replaces fluid lost by sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea. You can buy an ORS at drug and grocery stores. Follow package directions for mixing powders or giving frozen products. Drink small amounts over several hours if you have vomiting or diarrhea.

If your child has a severe imbalance, fluids and electrolytes can be given by IV while your child is in the hospital. If your child has chronic kidney disease, dialysis may be needed to remove excess electrolytes from the blood.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2018-06-13
Last reviewed: 2018-05-24
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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