Electrolyte tests


Electrolytes are positively and negatively charged molecules called ions, that are found within the body's cells and extracellular fluids, including blood plasma. A test for electrolytes includes the measurement of sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. These ions are measured to assess renal (kidney), endocrine (glandular), and acid-base function, and are components of both renal function and comprehensive metabolic biochemistry profiles. Other important electrolytes routinely measured in serum or plasma include calcium and phosphorus. These are measured together because they are both affected by bone and parathyroid diseases, and often move in opposing directions. Magnesium is another electrolyte that is routinely measured. Like calcium, it will cause tetany (uncontrolled muscle contractions) when levels are too low in the extracellular fluids.


Tests that measure the concentration of electrolytes are needed for both the diagnosis and management of renal, endocrine, acid-base, water balance, and many other conditions. Their importance lies in part with the serious consequences that follow from the relatively small changes that diseases or abnormal conditions may cause. For example, the reference range for potassium is 3.6-5.0 mmol/l. Potassium is often a STAT (needed immediately) test because values below 3.0 mmol/l are associated with arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), and cardiac arrest, and values above 6.0 mmol/L are associated with bradycardia (slow heartbeat) and heart failure. Abnormal potassium cannot be treated without reference to bicarbonate, which is a measure of the buffering capacity of the plasma. Sodium bicarbonate and dissolved carbon dioxide act together to resist changes in blood pH. For example, an increased plasma bicarbonate indicates a condition called metabolic alkalosis, which results in blood pH that is too high. This may cause hydrogen ions to shift from the cells into the extracellular fluid in exchange for potassium. As potassium moves into the cells, the plasma concentration falls. The low plasma potassium, called hypokalemia, should not be treated by administration of potassium, but by identifying and eliminating the cause of the alkalosis. Administration of potassium would result in hyperkalemia when the acid-base disturbance is corrected. Sodium measurements are very useful in differentiating the cause of an abnormal potassium result. Conditions such as the overuse of diuretics (drugs that promote lower blood pressure) often result in low levels of both sodium and potassium. On the other hand, Cushing's disease (adrenocortical over-activity) and Addison's disease (adrenocortical under-activity) drive the sodium and potassium in opposing directions. Chloride levels will follow sodium levels except in the case of acid-base imbalances, in which chloride may move in the opposing direction of bicarbonate. In short, diagnosis and management of a patient with an electrolyte disturbance is best served by measuring all four electrolytes.


Sodium is the principal extracellular cation and potassium the principal intracellular cation. A cation is an ion with a positive charge. An anion is an ion with a negative charge. Sodium levels are directly related to the osmotic pressure of the plasma. In fact, since an anion is always associated with sodium (usually chloride or bicarbonate), the plasma osmolality (total dissolved solute concentration) can be estimated. Since water will often follow sodium by diffusion, loss of sodium leads to dehydration and retention of sodium leads to edema. Conditions that promote increased sodium, called hypernatremia, do so without promoting an equivalent gain in water. Such conditions include diabetes insipidus (water loss by the kidneys), Cushing's disease, and hyperaldosteronism (increased sodium reabsorption). Many other conditions, such as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and renal disease result in renal retention of sodium, but an equivalent amount of water is retained as well. This results in a condition called total body sodium excess, which causes hypertension and edema, but not an elevated serum sodium concentration. Low serum sodium, called hyponatremia, may result from Addison's disease, excessive diuretic therapy, the syndrome of inappropriate secretion of antidiuretic hormone (SIADH), burns, diarrhea, vomiting, and cystic fibrosis. In fact, the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis is made by demonstrating an elevated chloride concentration (greater than 60 mmol/l) in sweat.

Potassium is the electrolyte used as a hallmark sign of renal failure. Like sodium, potassium is freely filtered by the kidney. However, in the distal tubule sodium is reabsorbed and potassium is secreted. In renal failure, the combination of decreased filtration and decreased secretion combine to cause increased plasma potassium. Hyperkalemia is the most significant and life-threatening complication of renal failure. Hyperkalemia is also commonly caused by hemolytic anemia (release from hemolysed red blood cells), diabetes insipidus, Addison's disease, and digitalis toxicity. Frequent causes of low serum potassium include alkalosis, diarrhea and vomiting, excessive use of thiazide diuretics, Cushing's disease, intravenous fluid administration, and SIADH.

Calcium and phosphorus are measured together because they are both likely to be abnormal in bone and parathyroid disease states. Parathyroid hormone causes resorption of these minerals from bone. However, it promotes intestinal absorption and renal reabsorption of calcium and renal excretion of phosphorus. In hyperparathyroidism, serum calcium will be increased and phosphorus will be decreased. In hypoparathyroidism and renal disease, serum calcium will be low but phosphorus will be high. In vitamin D dependent rickets (VDDR), both calcium and phosphorus will be low; however, calcium is normal while phosphorus is low in vitamin D resistant rickets (VDRR). Differential diagnosis of an abnormal serum calcium is aided by the measurement of ionized calcium (i.e., calcium not bound by protein). Approximately 45% of the calcium in blood is bound to protein, 45% is ionized, and 10% is complexed to anions in the form of undissociated salts. Only the ionized calcium is physiologically active, and the level of ionized calcium is regulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH) via negative feedback (high ionized calcium inhibits secretion of PTH). While hypoparathyroidism, VDDR, renal failure, hypoalbuminemia, hypovitaminosis D, and other conditions may cause low total calcium, only hypoparathyroidism (and alkalosis) will result in low ionized calcium. Conversely, while hyperparathyroidism, malignancies (those that secrete parathyroid hormone-related protein), multiple myeloma, antacids, hyperproteinemia, dehydration, and hypervitaminosis D cause an elevated total calcium, only hyperparathyroidism, malignancy, and acidosis cause an elevated ionized calcium.

Serum magnesium levels may be increased by hemolytic anemia, renal failure, Addison's disease, hyperparathyroidism, and magnesium-based antacids. Chronic alcoholism is the most common cause of a low serum magnesium owing to poor nutrition. Serum magnesium is also decreased in diarrhea, hypoparathyroidism, pancreatitis, Cushing's disease, and with excessive diuretic use. Low magnesium can be caused by a number of antibiotics and other drugs and by administration of intravenous solutions. Magnesium is needed for secretion of parathyroid hormone, and therefore, a low serum magnesium can induce hypocalcemia. Magnesium deficiency is very common in regions where the water supply does not contain sufficient magnesium salts. Magnesium acts as a calcium channel blocker, and when cellular magnesium is low, high intracellular calcium results. This leads to hypertension, tachycardia, and tetany. Unfortunately serum total magnesium levels do not correlate well with intracellular magnesium levels, and serum measurement is not very sensitive for detecting chronic deficiency because of compensatory contributions from bone. Ionized magnesium levels are better correlated with intracellular levels because the ionized form can move freely between the cells and extracellular fluids.

Measurement of electrolytes

Electrolytes are measured by a process known as potentiometry. This method measures the voltage that develops between the inner and outer surfaces of an ion selective electrode. The electrode (membrane) is made of a material that is selectively permeable to the ion being measured. This potential is measured by comparing it to the potential of a reference electrode. Since the potential of the reference electrode is held constant, the difference in voltage between the two electrodes is attributed to the concentration of ion in the sample.


Electrolyte tests are performed on whole blood, plasma, or serum, usually collected from a vein or capillary.

Special procedures are followed when collecting a sweat sample for electrolyte analysis. This procedure, called pilocarpine iontophoresis, uses electric current applied to the arm of the patient (usually an infant) in order to convey the pilocarpine to the sweat glands where it will stimulate sweating. Care must be taken to ensure that the collection device (macroduct tubing or gauze) does not become contaminated and that the patient's parent or guardian understands the need for the electrical equipment employed.


Usually no special preparation is necessary by the patient. Samples for calcium and phosphorus and for magnesium should be collected following an eight-hour fast.


Discomfort or bruising may occur at the puncture site, or the person may feel dizzy or faint. Pressure to the puncture site until the bleeding stops reduces bruising. Applying warm packs to the puncture site relieves discomfort.


Minor temporary discomfort may occur with any blood test, but there are no complications specific to electrolyte testing.

Normal results

Electrolyte concentrations are similar whether measured in serum or plasma. Values are expressed as mmol/L for sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. Magnesium results are often reported as milliequivalents per liter (meq/L) or in mg/dL. Total calcium is usually reported in mg/dL and ionized calcium in mmol/L. Since severe electrolyte disturbances can be associated with life-threatening consequences such as heart failure, shock, coma, or tetany, alert values are used to warn physicians of impending crisis. Typical reference ranges and alert values are cited below:



Henry, J. B. Clinical Diagnosis and Management of Laboratory Methods. 20th ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 2001.

Tierney, Lawrence M., Stephen J. McPhee, and Maxine A. Papadakis. Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2001. 40th ed. New York: Lange Medical Books/McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Wallach, Jacques. Interpretation of Diagnostic Tests. 7th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.


MedLine Plus. "Electrolytes." October 18, 2001 [cited April 4, 2003]. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002350.htm .

National Institutes of Health. [cited April 5, 2003]. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/encyclopedia.html .

Erika J. Norris Mark A. Best, M.D.

User Contributions:

I've just been released from hospital where I was treated for a number of problems. I was most concerned with yet another case of cellulitis of one of my lower legs, and that was a serious issue.

I was told some hours after I'd been admitted that, in addition to a serious infection, my potassium was low (unfortunately not unusual for me) and that my serum magnesium was low. The hospital apparently didn't think the results of my blood tests were any of my business and I learned what my serum K+ was (2.4)from my internist after I was released. I don't know what my magnesium was and have never been told my serum magnesium was low before.

I appreciate your site because it tells me what the normal ranges are for bloodwork, but does not attempt to diagnose me over the web.

Mike Fisher
By drinking pedialyte if one is tired and without energy, will this help re energize me or have any other effect posittve or negative?


was looking for information of electrolytes, being high, not low, waht is hapening, what i can do to make it better. kat
can i get information what makes electrolytes high , what to do to help get it back to near normal, how my body is reacting to it being high, things like that? thanks kat
how do you make the tester?
it is actually our chemistry project.
what symptoms did you have with high electrolytes, and how did you treat it, can't find what causes it, Dr. does not know. Tess
i am so pleased to read this article and i really learnt so many things.can you please get an article on the level of electrolyte on kidney disease...thank you
One day I was outside and my arms began tingling, and my right eye started twitching. Nothing major at first, however, within 10 min the tingling became overwhelming where it felt like I was holding onto an electrical curcuit. My face and arms became numb and then the tingling started in my legs. It lasted a good 45 minutes. My doctor did electrolyte tests and a holter test. My calcium levels came back elevated and they had me do more blood work. My pulse has been 110+ for more than a month. My doctor doesn't want to do anything else until the holter comes back, but I must say I'm quite concerned.
My wife has great difficulty regulating her blood calcium levels following surgical removal of her parathyroid gland. The levels are monitored by her local hospital. She has to go to the surgery or hospital for calcium blood tests ( between once per quarter and once a week). The results often take at least a week. The levels are maintained by taking D tablets. The adjustment of Vitamin D dose when necessary is guess work and because the information feed back loop (of calcium levels) is so slow and irregular it is very difficult to maintian good control. Consequently her levels have varied from 1.8 to over 3 mmol/l over the last 2 years. This which has severe side effects from raised anxiety to lower kidney function.
Previously I helped care for my diabetic son (type 1) since he was two years old. That taught me the immense value of the virtually instant feedback given by home use insulin blood meters.
So I wonder is there any similar prospect of obtaining a home testing device for calcium levels in the near future? Do you know of any organistion developing one? Alternatively could I buy a hand held commercial device ( designed for hospital use) and get training on how to use it.
okere samuel
very educative and incisive, i find the write up interesting for me as a laboratory technician
This article has helped me answer questions I couldn't answer.I therefore hope that much will be posted to enable detailed learning and furtherance of knowledge on electrolytes and even blood gas analysis. Thanks
Would you help me same way to understand better for Kidney test, Dialysis patient test and what test included in Renal panel. How does it look like in normal patient and what abnormality looks in different pathological condition? how kidney problem affect the platelet and red blood cell?
Please email me.

My daughter had been having involuntary movement in hands, shoulder, legs after knee surgry. She did not have an electrolyte test however, she did have some blood work. Her sodium 136, potassium 3.6, chloride 100, calcium 9.4 and her all phos was 45. Should i request a electrolyte test and a thyroid test?
Paul van Eden
What electolytes will give false elevated or lowered results if blood was drawn from a drip arm?
I have hyponitremia problems and wondered if there is a home testing device to check the sodium level of my blood.
bridget chinwenwa
What is the clinical interpretation of elevated serum potassium'sodium and chloride levels in the body system
Harrison victor
1) Is the electrolyte test a comfirmatory test for a disease condition? and what causes an elevated electrolyte value especially sodium and potassium?.
2)What is the principle behind the electrolyte balance test using a spectrophotometer?
lois geideman
if my sodium levels drop at home, how can I check what level they are on my own? I know the symptoms, but is there a device I can get to check it on my own at home before reaching a hospital?
Hi :) can you help me, wich one of the electrolites is high in a hemolytic newborn?? And why?? Thank you.
can low salt level cause anxiety issues. how to safely higher my salt intake? how can i know if the salt level is too low and needs boosting when travelling
This article is on point.The information provided is well explained.

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