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Determining if There is an Electrolyte Imbalance

written by: Kathy Foust • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 7/30/2009

Electrolyte imbalance is a dangerous thing. It can lead to bigger problems. Read here to learn more about how you can detect this imbalance.

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    What are Electrolytes?

    Though you hear quite often that those that are ill need to make sure they keep their electrolytes up, how many people really know what an electrolyte is?

    In layman's terms, electrolytes are chemicals found in the bloodstream that regulate the electrical charge and water flow in the bloodstream. Some of the names of these chemicals are potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, carbonate, phosphate and chloride.

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    Why do Electrolytes Fluctuate?

    One of the most common reasons for a change in electrolytes is due to dehydration. Diarrhea is one of the main causes of dehydration, especially in younger children. The nutrients and fluid in the body are coming out of the body faster than they are being put in. Thus the result is dehydration.

    When the water levels in the body go through drastic changes, there is bound to be a change in electrolytes as well. Just as the loss of water may cause a loss of electrolytes, too much water can cause too many electrolytes. Either occurrence can be dangerous to the individual.

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    Testing for Electrolyte Imbalance

    If an electrolyte imbalance is suspected, one should seek medical care for the correct medical examination to be performed. This is normally done in the form of blood tests or urine tests. The levels are measured through these samples and tests and the appropriate action is taken.

    However, there is a relatively simple test that can be done if one suspects that the individual is dehydrated. Place the thumb and index finger on the arm of the person who is suspected to be dehydrated. Squeeze a small amount of skin. Do not squeeze too hard or you will pinch the person you are testing. A person who is not dehydrated has plenty of water in their skin, so that the skin is elastic. When you release the skin after holding it like this, it should resume it's normal shape. If the person is dehydrated, there is not enough water in the system and the skin loses elasticity. When you let go of the skin of a person who is dehydrated, the skin will not go back into place, but will remain as it was when it was squeezed between your fingers. Some of the other signs and symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are listed below.

    • dizziness
    • nausea and vomiting
    • abnormal heart rhythm
    • numbness in hands and feet
    • confusion
    • seizures

    If any of these symptoms are present, it's best to seek medical attention immediately to avoid any type of permanent damage to the body.

    References:Merck