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Care During Chemotherapy and Beyond

Electrolyte Imbalance



What are electrolytes?

There are many chemicals in your blood stream that regulate important functions of our bodies.  These chemicals are called electrolytes.  When dissolved in water, electrolytes separate into positively and negatively charged ions.  Your body's nerve reactions and muscle function are dependent upon the proper exchange of these electrolyte ions outside and inside cells.

Examples of electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Electrolyte Imbalance can cause a variety of symptoms.

Normal Adult Values
Calcium: 4.5-5.5 mEq/L
Chloride: 97-107 mEq/L
Potassium: 3.5-5.3 mEq/L
Magnesium: 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
Sodium: 136-145 mEq/L

* Note: Normal values may vary from laboratory to laboratory.

Interpreting Blood Test Results - Electrolyte Imbalance:

What is an electrolyte imbalance?

There are many causes for an electrolyte imbalance. Causes for an electrolyte imbalance may include:

  • Loss of body fluids from prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or high fever
  • Inadequate diet and lack of vitamins from food
  • Malabsorption - your body may be unable to absorb these electrolytes due to a variety of stomach disorders, medications, or may be how food is taken in
  • Hormonal or endocrine disorders
  • Kidney disease
  • A complication of chemotherapy is tumor lysis syndrome. This occurs when your body breaks down tumor cells rapidly after chemotherapy, causing a low blood calcium level, high blood potassium levels, and other electrolyte abnormalities.

Certain medications may cause an electrolyte imbalance such as:

  • Chemotherapy drugs (cisplatin)
  • Diuretics (furosemide[Lasix] or bumetanide[Bumex])
  • Antibiotics (amphotericin B)
  • Corticosteroids (hydrocortisone)

What are some symptoms of electrolyte imbalance to look for?

  • As described, an electrolyte imbalance may create a number of symptoms.  The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are based on which of the electrolyte levels are affected.
  • If your blood test results indicate an altered potassium, magnesium, sodium, or calcium levels, you may experience muscle spasm, weakness, twitching, or convulsions.
  • Blood test results showing low levels may lead to: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, nervous system or bone disorders.
  • Blood test results showing high levels may lead to: weakness or twitching of the muscles, numbness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat and blood pressure changes.

How is an electrolyte imbalance diagnosed?

An electrolyte imbalance is usually diagnosed based upon information obtained through:

  • Your history of symptoms.
  • A physical examination by your healthcare provider.
  • Urine and blood test results.
  • If there are other abnormalities based on these findings, your healthcare provider may suggest further testing, such as an EKG.  (Severely high or low potassium, magnesium and/or sodium levels can affect your heart rhythm.)
  • If you have an electrolyte imbalance due to kidney problems, your healthcare provider may want to do an ultrasound or x-ray of your kidneys.

Treatment of an electrolyte imbalance:

  • Identifying and treating the underlying problemcausing the electrolyte imbalance.
  • Intravenous fluids, electrolyte replacement.
  • A Minor electrolyte imbalance may be corrected by diet changes.  For example; eating a diet rich in potassium if you have low potassium levels, or restricting your water intake if you have a low blood sodium level.

Return to list of Blood Test Abnormalities

Note:  We strongly encourage you to talk with your health care professional about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information contained in this website is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute for medical advice.