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In physiology, an electrolyte disturbance is an abnormal change in the levels of electrolytes in the body, usually constituting a medical emergency. Severe or prolonged electrolyte disturbance can lead to cardiac problems, neuronal malfunction, organ failure, and ultimately death, such as with water intoxication.

Electrolytes play a vital role in maintaining homeostasis within the body. They help to regulate myocardial and neurological function, fluid balance, oxygen delivery, acid-base balance and much more. Electrolyte imbalances can develop by the following mechanisms: excessive ingestion or diminished elimination of an electrolyte or diminished ingestion or excessive elimination of an electrolyte. The most common cause of electrolyte disturbances is renal failure.

The most serious electrolyte disturbances involve abnormalities in the levels of sodium, potassium, and/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 can lead to electrolyte disturbances along with dehydration.


There is a standard nomenclature for electrolyte disorders:

  1. The name starts with a prefix denoting whether the electrolyte is abnormally elevated ("hyper-") or depleted ("hypo-").
  2. The word stem then gives the name of the electrolyte in Latin. If no Latin equivalent exists, then the corresponding term in English is used.
  3. The name ends with the suffix "-emia," meaning "in the blood." (Note, this doesn't mean that the disturbance is only in the blood; usually, electrolyte disturbance is systemic. However, since the disturbance is usually detected from blood testing, the convention has developed.)

For instance, elevated potassium in the blood is called "hyperkalemia" from the Latin term for potassium, "kalium".

Table of common electrolyte disturbances

Electrolyte Ionic formula Elevation disorder Depletion disorder
Sodium Na+ hypernatremia hyponatremia
Potassium K+ hyperkalemia hypokalemia
Calcium Ca2+ hypercalcemia hypocalcemia
Magnesium Mg2+ hypermagnesemia hypomagnesemia
Chloride Cl- hyperchloremia hypochloremia
Phosphate PO43- hyperphosphatemia hypophosphatemia
Bicarbonate HCO3- hyperbicarbonatemia hypobicarbonatemia

See also

de:Elektrolytstörung {{enWP|Electrolyte disturbance