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What Do Low Sodium Levels Mean?

If you exhibit signs and symptoms suggestive of an electrolyte imbalance, your doctor will perform a blood test to determine the origin. If the laboratory results reveal a suboptimal serum sodium level, or hyponatremia, your doctor will begin treatment immediately. If left untreated, hyponatremia puts you at risk for worsening side effects, some of them dangerous. In addition to treating you, your doctor should educate you about hyponatremia and determine the underlying cause of the electrolyte imbalance.


The symptoms of hyponatremia include headache, nausea, vomiting, irritability, loss of appetite, fatigue and altered mental status. These alterations in mental status, such as confusion and hallucinations, can progress to decreased levels of consciousness and eventually coma. If you experience these symptoms and have any of the risk factors for hyponatremia, such as recent intense exercise or an underlying medical condition, contact your doctor.


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A healthy individual should have a serum sodium level from 136 milliequivalents to 145 milliequivalents per liter of blood. Your doctor will diagnose you with hyponatremia if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of the electrolyte imbalance and your laboratory results reveal a serum sodium level less than 135 milliequivalents per liter.


The causes of hyponatremia include excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, congestive heart failure, use of diuretics and burns to your body. Other health problems, including liver cirrhosis, impaired renal function, hormonal imbalances like hypothyroidism and Addison's disease and the use of ecstasy, a common recreational drug, are also potential causes for low sodium levels.


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There are three types of hyponatremia. Failure of the heart, liver and/or kidneys can cause your body to retain water. This excess water dilutes the sodium concentration of your blood, thereby leading to hypervolemic hyponatremia. Overexerting yourself in extreme heat without replacing the water and electrolytes lost through excessive sweating can result in a type of severe dehydration called hypovolemic hyponatremia. The condition occurs when both your sodium and water levels fall too low. Cancer and other chronic medical conditions can cause euvolemic hyponatremia. This imbalance is a condition in which serum water levels are within optimal range, but serum sodium levels are low.


According to the "Western Journal of Medicine," treatment of hyponatremia depends on its cause and symptoms. Intravenous electrolytes and/or fluid replacement -- over a long period of time to avoid neurologic complications -- is the treatment for hypovolemic and euvolemic hyponatremia. Your doctor may prescribe a strict regimen of fluid restriction to resolve hypervolemic hyponatremia.