Electrolytes are minerals, such as potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium, in the blood and body fluids. They affect the health of all body cells, including heart and muscle. Held in balance by several mechanisms, including breathing, sweating, and kidney function, electrolyte disturbances can range from mild to life-threatening. Chronic diseases, certain drugs or chemotherapy, dehydration from vomiting and diarrhoea, bleeding, and prolonged lack of oxygen can lead to electrolyte imbalances. Treatment consists of resolving the cause, replacing or counteracting minerals, and adjusting fluid intake.
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High potassium, or hyperkalemia, can manifest itself as joint pain, cloudy urine, shortness of breath, listlessness, irregular heartbeat, nausea, and vomiting. Kidney failure, loss of motor control and death may result. Kidney disease is the most common cause of hyperkalemia. Diuretic drugs can cause the loss of potassium. Low potassium is called hypokalemia. Symptoms may include muscle weakness, fatigue, bloating, and irregular heartbeat. When potassium depletion is corrected, a complete recovery is likely.
Too much sodium (the main component in salt) is called hypernatremia. Elderly persons who aren't aware of thirst are at higher risk for a sodium imbalance. Untreated hypernatremia can lead to brain damage and coma, which may be irreversible. Hyponatremia, or too little sodium, may be treated by restriction of fluids. Symptoms of low sodium may be similar to those of high sodium, with the addition of nausea and vomiting. Muscle cramps, weakness, irritability, confusion, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, abnormal blood pressure, low urine output, oedema (swelling), thirst, loss of motor control, and seizures signal a sodium imbalance.
Calcium excess, or hypercalcemia, is a common side effect of some cancer treatments. Too much calcium in the body causes muscle weakness, numbness and tingling in extremities, loss of appetite, mental confusion, nausea, and vomiting and can progress to coma, convulsions, and death if not treated. Symptoms of low calcium are muscle twitching, arm and leg cramps, numb fingers and toes, depression, irritability, sleepiness, confusion, and an irregular heartbeat. Vitamin D deficiency, kidney failure, and the effects of some cancer treatments can cause a low calcium electrolyte imbalance.
Overuse of magnesium antacids or laxatives, kidney disease, and diabetes can cause a condition of hypermagnesemia, or too much magnesium. Breathing problems, disorientation, muscle weakness, slow heart rate, and low blood pressure may result. Hypomagnesemia is too little magnesium, characterised by appetite loss, tremors, dizziness, and mental confusion. Cirrhosis of the liver, pregnancy preeclampsia, pancreatitis and prolonged diarrhoea are possible causes. This life-threatening condition must be treated immediately.
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