Electrolytes & Dehydration

Dehydration is the loss of fluid from the body. There are many reasons for dehydration, including heatstroke, strenuous exercise, kidney disease, vomiting and diarrhea, and chronic conditions like diabetes. The symptoms of dehydration include dry lips and mouth, rapid heart rate and decreased urine output. Dehydration can affect the concentration of the body's electrolytes, causing a fluid and electrolyte imbalance. While your body contains several electrolytes, including calcium, the ones most affected by dehyration are sodium, potassium and chloride.

Sports drinks can help prevent dehydration. Credit: Bob Randall/iStock/Getty Images

Sodium

Sodium is one of the electrolytes most closely linked to the body's fluid balance, since water tends to go to the areas of higher sodium concentration. Dehydration can cause hyponatremia, or low sodium levels, or hypernatremia, or high sodium levels. Symptoms of low sodium include headache, nausea and vomiting, confusion and fatigue. High sodium can cause increased thirst, confusion and muscle twitching, and can lead to seizures and coma.

Potassium

Potassium is another electrolyte that can be affected by dehydration. Potassium is important for muscle contraction and the heart's rhythm. The majority of potassium in the body is stored within the cells, so small changes in the concentration of potassium in the bloodstream can have serious health consequences. Dehydration can lead to hyperkalemia, or increased potassium levels. High potassium can cause arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythms, that could be life-threatening.

Chloride

The levels of chloride in the bloodstream usually follow those of sodium. Chloride is a negatively charged electrolyte important in the maintenance of the body's fluid balance. Dehydration can lead to hyperchloremia, or elevated chloride concentration. Chloride also can affect the body's acid balance, and high chloride levels can cause rapid breathing and generalized weakness.

Treatment and Prevention

The treatment for dehydration is frequent fluid intake, especially when sweating a lot or involved in vigorous physical activity. Drinking sports drinks, which have electrolytes, also can prevent electrolyte imbalances. In severe cases of dehydration, intravenous fluids might be needed. These fluids contain sodium and chloride, and can have potassium and sugar added. Care must be taken to correct electrolyte levels slowly and under close monitoring to avoid complications like seizures or kidney disease.

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