Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium, and chloride,, with electric charges controlling several vital functions. They enable the transport of nutrients into the cells and help remove the waste matter. An electrolytes panel or electrolyte test determines abnormal levels of electrolytes in the blood to diagnose multiple diseases and health conditions.

Significance of electrolytes

We know that the total water content in a healthy adult human body is about sixty per cent. Fluids in our body comprise electrolytes. These are vital for regulating the body’s fluid balance and stabilising the pH level. In fact, electrolytes are helpful in maintaining heart rhythm, muscle movements, and nerve activities.

Electrolytes are present in various body fluids like blood, sweat, and urine. These comprise:

  • Sodium– Facilitates the body’s fluid control and enables proper activities of muscles and nerves.
  • Calcium– Besides building bones, calcium regulates heart rhythm, transmits nerve signals, and ensures muscle control.
  • Phosphate– It plays a crucial role in moving compounds and molecules from cells.
  • Magnesium– It boosts functions of the brain and muscles while helping cells to produce energy from nutrients.
  • Chloride– It plays a vital role in the maintenance of a fluid balance between inside and outside the cell structure.
  • Bicarbonate– It helps maintain the pH balance to prevent alkalosis and acidosis

The term electrolyte has a close association with an electrical charge. An imbalance of electrolytes means your body cannot maintain balance at the basic chemical level. Electrolytes help cells conduct electricity, induce chemical reactions, and preserve the fluid balance between the inner and outer environment of cells.

Electrolyte imbalance and related medical conditions

Maintenance of the electrolyte balance is vital for the functioning of the body. Each electrolyte element has a specific role, and an imbalance can lead to different medical conditions requiring restoration of the electrolyte balance. Following are some conditions because of higher or lower electrolyte levels.

  • Hyperkalemia– Excess potassium in the blood leads to arrhythmia, muscle weakness, and confusion.
  • Hypokalemia– Low potassium levels can cause severe issues, including kidney damage.
  • Hypercalcemia– The presence of higher levels of calcium in the blood can affect the heart, brain, and kidneys. It also causes digestive disorders and joint pain.
  • Hypocalcemia– Low sodium levels in the blood may cause behaviour changes, confusion, muscle spasm, and loss of muscle control.
  • Hypernatremia– Excess sodium in the blood causes behaviour issues, coma, or seizures.
  • Hyponatremia- Insufficient sodium levels in the blood cause seizures, coma, confusion, and weak reflexes.
  • Acidosis– Deficiency of bi-carbonate increases the acidity of the blood. This condition is known as acidosis. It may cause shortness of breath and confusion.
  • Alkalosis– It is the opposite of acidosis. The blood becomes alkaline in alkalosis, with higher bicarbonate levels. It can cause muscle twitching and irregular heartbeats.

Considering an electrolytes test

There are conditions with vague symptoms like severe diarrhoea, vomiting, confusion, weakness, and irregular heartbeats. Physicians may order a serum electrolytes test if they suspect an electrolyte imbalance as the root cause.

The electrolytes test involves taking out a blood sample from the individual’s vein with a small needle. The test is not very painful as one may experience a minor sting-like sensation as the technician inserts the needle. 

No fasting is necessary before the electrolyte test unless your physician recommends additional tests like a fasting glucose test. Drink plenty of water to facilitate easy blood withdrawal. The test results will show the levels of electrolytes in mmol/L. The following are normal ranges of electrolytes:

  • Potassium- 3.5 to 5.2
  • Sodium- 134 to 144
  • Chloride- 96 to 106
  • Bi-carbonate- 20 to 29

You need not panic if the results are not within the normal ranges, as several factors like medicines and dehydration can affect these values. Your physician will study the results of the electrolyte test. The main difference between positively charged and negatively charged electrolytes may suggest disorders of the kidneys or lungs. Depending on your medical history and clinical assessment, they may order additional tests if there is an electrolyte imbalance.

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Highlights of electrolyte test

The electrolyte panel test is another term for the Serum Electrolytes Test, which measures the body’s electrolyte levels. A physician may order the test as part of a routine health check or to study the abnormal electrolyte levels to understand the underlying causes of irregular heart rhythm, hypertension, and kidney disorders

Measurement of Serum electrolytes may involve testing a particular electrolyte if the physician wants to check the level of a single electrolyte. Usually, the testing of common electrolytes is a routine procedure.

Your physician will study the results to know the variance between normal and actual levels of different electrolytes. These levels may be normal, higher, or lower. The physician will correlate the results with other factors before reaching any conclusion.

There are multiple reasons for abnormal electrolyte levels. These may not always be serious. Fluid loss because of diarrhoea or excessive sweating may cause an imbalance of electrolytes. Abnormal Serum electrolytes levels can be because of blood pressure medicines or antacids.

Why does an individual need an electrolyte test?

An electrolytes blood test is helpful in many situations since electrolytes play diverse roles in supporting and maintaining multiple functions. Besides ordering an electrolytes test as a routine screening test, a physician may suggest an electronic panel because:

  • An electrolyte imbalance may involve problems in the liver and kidneys. The electrolyte panel helps monitor kidney and liver functions. It is also helpful to check the nutritional status and hydration if a physician suspects malnutrition or dehydration in a patient.
  • An electrolyte test is helpful for checking brain health, as sodium is a significant electrolyte for a healthy brain. Calcium, potassium, and magnesium are vital electrolytes for proper heart functioning. The test is suitable for monitoring electrolyte levels in diabetes.
  • An electrolyte blood test is suitable to assess nonspecific symptoms, such as appetite loss, dizziness, or fatigue. Physicians use the test to rule out specific endocrine, liver, and kidney conditions.

The takeaway

The electrolyte test helps assess body fluids. It provides a clear picture of different electrolyte levels in the blood along with the acid-base balance. A physician may order a serum electrolyte test to monitor the effectiveness of various treatments. The test helps understand the course of a specific medical condition.

There are multiple causes of an electrolyte imbalance, including dehydration. An electrolyte test helps physicians arrive at a specific diagnosis or rule out a suspected disease.

Electrolyte panel may also be a part of testing for other systems like Renal function tests and Comprehensive metabolic panel.

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electrolytes disorder

What are electrolyte disorders?

We will come to that, but first, do you know what electrolytes are? These are minerals that occur naturally in your body and help your body perform multiple day-to-day functions. Electrolytes not only help balance the water levels in your body but also regulate the acid-base balance, help nutrients move in and waste move out of the body cells, and pass signals across nerve and muscle cells. Examples of electrolytes include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and chloride. These minerals are present in your blood, urine and body fluids.

When the level of any of these physiologic compounds gets either too high or too low, the imbalance is termed as an electrolyte disorder. To prevent your vital body functions from getting affected by electrolyte disorders, it is important to identify the warning signs, get them diagnosed early, and receive treatment on time.

How do you tell if you have electrolyte disorders?

Depending on the severity of the electrolyte disorder, symptoms might vary from person to person. In fact, the milder forms may not cause any symptoms. Thus, it is very common for electrolyte disorders to go unnoticed. The best way to know if you could have electrolyte imbalance is to get a health test done that checks electrolyte levels. This test will provide a detailed break up of all the electrolytes and let your doctor see if there is any disruption in the electrolytes levels.

Also, different electrolyte disorders can share many symptoms in common.

Some of the common symptoms of electrolyte disorders include:

  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Cramps in abdomen
  • Muscle weakness and cramps
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fast heart rate
  • Numbness and tingling sensation in hands and feet

Severe electrolyte imbalances can cause serious concerns like coma, seizures, and cardiac arrest. It is thus advisable to not let your electrolyte disturbances be left untreated. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms too often without any other known medical concern, get tested for electrolytes and consult a doctor.

What can give you electrolyte disorders?

The most common causes of electrolyte disorders include loss of body fluids due to prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating. Burns causing fluid loss can also lead to electrolyte disturbances.

In some people, certain underlying health conditions like chronic kidney disease or some medicines can cause electrolyte disorders. However, the exact cause may differ based on the type of electrolyte imbalance.

Could you be at risk?

While anyone can get an electrolyte disorder, the risk may be increased in some people due to their medical history. Health conditions that put a person at risk of developing electrolyte disorder include:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Disorders related to the adrenal gland.

Can electrolyte disorders be of different types?

Yes, depending on the electrolyte whose levels are disturbed and whether the levels have elevated or depleted, electrolyte disorders can be of many different types. For example, if calcium levels have gone down, it is called hypocalcemia; if they have gone up, it is termed hypercalcemia. Similarly, if sodium levels dip down, it is called hyponatremia; if sodium levels rise, it is termed hypernatremia.

How are electrolyte disorders treated?

Treatment options are usually aimed at restoring the balance of minerals in the body. Also, it will vary based on the type of electrolyte disorder and the underlying cause.

Some of the treatment options include:

Intravenous (IV) fluids such as sodium chloride: These are commonly used in cases of dehydration resulting from vomiting or diarrhea.

Certain IV medicines depending on the electrolyte imbalance you have: For example, calcium gluconate, potassium chloride, and magnesium chloride. These can help restore electrolyte balance quickly.

Oral medications and supplements: These are commonly used if a person has been affected with ongoing kidney disease. Hemodialysis: Hemodialysis is a procedure that uses a machine to remove waste from your blood. It is used when an electrolyte disorder is caused by sudden kidney damage and other treatment options do not seem to help.

What can you do to prevent electrolyte disorders?

  • Keep yourself hydrated and eat a balanced diet. Minor forms of electrolyte imbalance can be corrected via replenishing the body’s stores via eating mineral-rich food items. For example, including bananas, oranges, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, etc in your diet can help your body fend off potassium deficiency.  
  • If you are working out for more than 30 minutes, sip a sports drink containing electrolytes. Avoid drinking too much water along with it, as it might dilute the minerals and decrease the health benefits.
  • If you experience any warning sign of an electrolyte disturbance, get your electrolyte levels checked, do consult a doctor, and seek medical advice.

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