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Electrolyte Imbalance in Children

By Karen Cashin

Parents make every effort they can to ensure that their children are healthy and eating and drinking the right things. Ensuring children have a nutritional diet that meets the requirements to grow strong means making sure that the right vitamins and minerals are a part of the equation each day. Electrolytes are important to everyday bodily functions and should be a part of daily dietary consumption, especially for children. Having electrolytes out of balance can spell problems for children.


The Merck Manual Home Edition defines electrolytes as the minerals and macrominerals in the blood and body that help regulate nerve and muscle functions as well as fluid balance. Electrolytes also help keep the ratio of acids and bases in alignment for balance. Fluids are important to the body and normal body functioning requires these fluids to be at the right levels in the cells, around the cells and in the blood. The concentration of electrolytes in the compartments determines how much fluid is in the compartment. That means when the electrolytes are out of balance, the compartments don’t have the right balance of fluid and the nerves and muscles can’t function properly.


Electrolyte imbalance in children can be caused by vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, certain medications or kidney problems. Any illness or medical concern that results in the body losing more fluids than it is taking in can result in an electrolyte imbalance. Dehydration in children can be common due to illness or as a reaction to food. Children can also sweat excessively during a fever or activity, which means water is quickly evaporating from the body.


According to the Merck Manual of Health and Aging, if the electrolyte imbalance results from a low sodium level--called hyponatremia--children may seem drowsy, confused or show muscle weakness. A high sodium electrolyte imbalance can present with thirst followed by a sluggish, weak feeling. If a high potassium level causes the imbalance, an abnormal heartbeat is likely the first sign. Low potassium levels causing electrolyte imbalances result in signs of fatigue, confusion and muscle weakness.


Treatment for electrolyte imbalances in children involves replacing the lost fluids to get the body back to the normal levels. Older children may do this by drinking plain water at first and then potentially moving on to drinks with sugars and electrolytes. When vomiting or diarrhea is the cause for the imbalance, an oral rehydration solution or ORS can be used to restore the electrolyte balance. ORS is available over-the-counter without a prescription. If children do not respond to ORS or the vomiting or diarrhea is severe, hospitalization with an IV may be necessary.


Children and infants have a greater rate of fluid turnover since they have a higher metabolic rate. This means they are more susceptible to electrolyte imbalances. Body size also factors in to how the body uses fluids and the incidence of electrolyte imbalance, putting children in a higher risk group.

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