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Electrolyte imbalance, or water-electrolyte imbalance, is an abnormality in the concentration of electrolytes in the body. Electrolytes play a vital role in maintaining homeostasis within the body. They help to regulate heart and neurological function, fluid balance, oxygen delivery, acid-base balance and much more. Electrolyte imbalances can develop by the following mechanisms: excessive ingestion; diminished elimination of an electrolyte; diminished ingestion; or excessive elimination of an electrolyte.
The most serious electrolyte disturbances involve abnormalities in the levels of sodium, potassium or calcium. Other electrolyte imbalances are less common and often occur in conjunction with major electrolyte changes. Chronic laxative abuse or severe diarrhea or vomiting (gastroenteritis) can lead to electrolyte disturbances along with dehydration. People suffering from bulimia or anorexia nervosa are at especially high risk for an electrolyte imbalance. At worst, electrolyte imbalance can lead to death by cardiac failure if not treated appropriately and rapidly enough, as may be observed with the refeeding syndrome.
Electrolytes are important because they are what cells (especially nerve, heart and muscle cells) use to maintain voltages across their cell membranes and to carry electrical impulses (nerve impulses, muscle contractions) across themselves and to other cells.Kidneys work to keep the electrolyte concentrations in blood constant despite changes in the body. For example, during heavy exercise, electrolytes are lost in sweat, particularly in the form of sodium and potassium. The kidneys can also generate dilute urine to balance sodium levels. These electrolytes must be replaced to keep the electrolyte concentrations of the body fluids constant. Hyponatremia is the most commonly seen type of electrolyte imbalance.
A common response to electrolyte imbalance is to prescribe supplementation. However, most people with such a disorder do not have a deficiency, but rather a water excess, causing the imbalance. Supplementation for these people may correct the electrolyte imbalance but at the expense of volume overload, which can be dangerous particularly for neonates.