Electrolytes & Shortness of Breath

nurse with stethoscope and senior woman at clinic
A nurse checking an elderly woman's breathing. (Image: dolgachov/iStock/Getty Images)

Most people experience shortness of breath, a condition medically known as dyspnea, periodically usually due to factors like physical exertion. When you continually experience shortness of breath -- the feeling that you cannot get enough air -- it could be caused by a condition that affects your body’s ability to intake or circulate the oxygen your cells need. Because electrolytes balance the volume of blood and transmit electrical impulses that keep your heart beating rhythmically, an electrolyte imbalance can cause shortness of breath.

Shortness of Breath

Respiratory problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma can cause shortness of breath, but shortness of breath can also occur when your cells feel deprived of oxygen. When you breathe, your lungs intake oxygen and allow the oxygen to enter the bloodstream. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body for cells to use. Changes in blood pressure and heart function affect the movement of oxygen to the cells and can cause shortness of breath.

Fluid Balance

Electrolytes play a vital role in maintaining blood volume, which impacts your blood pressure. Two important electrolytes, sodium and potassium, work together to balance fluid level. Potassium ions enter your cells, while the majority of sodium ions remain in the fluid surrounding your cells. Because both attract water, this helps balance the level of fluid in and out of cells. An imbalance in sodium or potassium can increase blood volume, which causes blood pressure to increase, or decrease blood volume, causing low blood pressure. Low blood pressure decreases the flow of oxygen to your cells, which can cause shortness of breath. High blood pressure causes your heart to work harder, which requires more oxygen, causing you to feel shortness of breath.

Heart Function

Electrolytes regulate muscle contractions, which makes them vital to heart function. A specialized group of cells in your heart, known as the sinus node, send out tiny electrical impulses. These impulses stimulate the sodium ions surrounding muscle cells to carry the impulse into the cell. This stimulates the internal cell structure known as the sarcoplasmic reticulum to release calcium ions into the fluid portion of the cell, which triggers the cell to contract. Magnesium ions found in the fluid portion of the cell generate electrical charges that propel the calcium back into the internal structure, allowing the cell to relax. An imbalance of any of these electrolytes interferes with this process, causes irregular heartbeats, inhibits the normal flow of oxygenated blood and can lead to shortness of breath.

Causes of Imbalance

The most common cause of an electrolyte imbalance is the excessive loss of fluid. This can occur due to diarrhea, vomiting or excessive sweating. In these cases it is important to replace lost fluids to restore the balance of electrolytes. Your kidneys also play a role in maintaining electrolyte balance by removing excess fluid and minerals, or electrolytes, from your blood. In conditions of impaired kidney function, such as kidney disease, excess levels of electrolytes remain in the blood, which can affect both blood pressure and heart function and lead to symptoms like shortness of breath.

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