How to Prevent an Electrolyte Imbalance
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Fluids in your body
Athletes have been swigging electrolyte replenishers since 1965. That was the year a Florida Gators coach asked doctors why his players were wilting so quickly in the heat. Their answer? The players were losing too many electrolytes. Their solution was to invent Gatorade. So, what are electrolytes and why are they important?
Water and electrolytes are essential to your health. At birth, your body is about 75 to 80 percent water. By the time you’re an adult, the percentage of water in your body drops to approximately 60 percent if you’re male and 55 percent if you’re female. The volume of water in your body will continue to decrease as you age.
Fluid in your body contains things such as cells, proteins, glucose, and electrolytes. Electrolytes come from the food and liquids you consume. Salt, potassium, calcium, and chloride are examples of electrolytes.
Electricity and your body
Each electrolyte plays a specific role in your body. The following are some of the most important electrolytes and their primary functions:
- helps control fluids in the body, impacting blood pressure
- necessary for muscle and nerve function
- helps balance electrolytes
- helps balance electrolytes
- balances acidity and alkalinity, which helps maintain a healthy pH
- essential to digestion
- regulates your heart and blood pressure
- helps balance electrolytes
- aids in transmitting nerve impulses
- contributes to bone health
- necessary for muscle contraction
- important to the production of DNA and RNA
- contributes to nerve and muscle function
- helps maintain heart rhythm
- helps regulate blood glucose levels
- enhances your immune system
- key component of bones and teeth
- important to the movement of nerve impulses and muscle movement
- contributes to blood clotting
- strengthens bones and teeth
- helps cells produce the energy needed for tissue growth and repair
- helps your body maintain a healthy pH
- regulates heart function
When electrolytes become unbalanced
Fluids are found inside and outside the cells of your body. The levels of these fluids should be fairly consistent. On average, about 40 percent of your body weight is from fluids inside the cells and 20 percent of your body weight is from fluids outside the cells. Electrolytes help your body juggle these values in order to maintain a healthy balance inside and outside your cells.
It’s normal for electrolyte levels to fluctuate. Sometimes, though, your electrolyte levels can become imbalanced. This can result in your body creating too many or not enough minerals or electrolytes. A number of things can cause an electrolyte imbalance, including:
- fluid loss from heavy exercise or physical activity
- vomiting and diarrhea
- medications such as diuretics, antibiotics, and chemotherapy drugs
- alcoholism and cirrhosis
- heart failure
- kidney disease
- eating disorders
- severe burns
- some forms of cancer
Preventing electrolyte imbalance
The International Marathon Medical Director’s Association offers the following guidelines for maintaining good hydration and electrolyte balance during activity:
- If your urine is clear to straw-colored before a race or workout, you’re well hydrated.
- You should drink a sports drink containing electrolytes and carbohydrates if your sporting event or workout lasts longer than 30 minutes.
- Drinking water with a sports drink decreases the beverage’s benefits.
- Drink when you’re thirsty. Don’t feel you must constantly replenish fluids.
- Although the needs of each individual differ, a general rule of thumb is to limit fluids to 4–6 ounces every 20 minutes of a race.
- Seek immediate medical advice if you lose more than 2 percent of your body weight or if you gain weight after running.
Serious emergencies from electrolyte imbalances are rare. But it’s important to your health and, if you’re an athlete, your performance to maintain a healthy electrolyte balance.
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance vary depending on which electrolytes are most affected. Common symptoms include:
Electrolyte imbalances can be life-threatening. Call 911 if someone has the following symptoms:
- confusion or sudden change in behavior
- severe muscle weakness
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- chest pain
Treatment is determined by the cause of the electrolyte imbalance, the severity of the imbalance, and by the type of electrolyte that’s either in short supply or overabundant. Treatment options normally include either increasing or decreasing fluid intake. Mineral supplements may be given by mouth or intravenously if depleted.
Electrolyte Water: Benefits and Myths
Whether you drink bottled or tap water, it most likely contains trace amounts of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
However, the concentration of electrolytes in beverages may vary greatly. Some brands add a significant amount of minerals along with carbs and market their water as a sports drink, while others only add a negligible amount for taste.
This article discusses the potential benefits of electrolyte-enhanced water, as well as common myths surrounding it.
What Is Electrolyte Water?
Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water.
They’re distributed through the fluid in your body and use their electrical energy to facilitate important bodily functions (1).
Electrolytes are essential for (rx):
- Controlling your fluid balance.
- Regulating your blood pressure.
- Helping your muscles contract — including your heart.
- Maintaining the correct acidity of your blood (pH).
Common electrolytes include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Electrolyte waters are enhanced with these charged minerals, but the concentrations vary.
Unless it’s labeled “distilled,” your regular bottled water provides at least a small amount of electrolytes, and many products contain trace amounts for taste.
Tap water has electrolytes as well. On average, 34 ounces (1 liter) of tap water contain 2–3% of the reference daily intake (RDI) for sodium, calcium and magnesium but little to no potassium (rx).
In contrast, the same amount of popular electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks packs up to 18% of the RDI for sodium and 3% of the RDI for potassium but little to no magnesium or calcium (rx).
Electrolytes are charged minerals important for maintaining optimal body functions. Common electrolyte beverages include enhanced waters and sports drinks.
May Improve Exercise Performance
Electrolyte-enhanced waters, particularly sports drinks, may benefit athletes by helping replenish water, electrolytes and energy lost during exercise.
During physical activity, you need additional fluids to replace the water lost in sweat. In fact, a water loss of as little as 1–2% of your body weight can lead to decreased strength, speed and focus (rx, rx).
Sweat also contains electrolytes, including a significant amount of sodium, as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. On average, you lose around 1 gram of sodium with every liter of sweat (rx).
Sports drinks are recommended over plain water to replace fluid and electrolytes if you tend to sweat a lot, exercise longer than one hour or in hot environments (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Sourcerx).
You should note that sports drinks are designed for athletes, not sedentary individuals. Along with electrolytes, they contain calories from added sugar. In fact, a 20-ounce (591-ml) bottle of Gatorade packs a whopping 30 grams of sugar (rx).
Sports drinks are designed for athletes and contain electrolytes along with carbs to replenish the nutrients lost through sweating. They’re recommended for prolonged exercise and exercise in hot weather
Can Rehydrate During Illness
In the short term, vomiting and diarrhea are usually not serious conditions. However, severe or persistent symptoms can quickly lead to dehydration if fluids and electrolytes are not replaced.
Infants and children are especially vulnerable to dehydration from severe vomiting and diarrhea. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using an oral rehydration solution at the first signs of illness to prevent dehydration (rx).
Oral rehydration solutions contain water, carbs and electrolytes in specific proportions that are easy to digest. A popular example is Pedialyte.
Sports drinks are similar but contain higher amounts of sugar. They’re not recommended for infants and young children, as they may worsen diarrhea (rx).
Sports drinks may be tolerated by older children if diluted to 1 part water, 1 part sports drink. Adults typically tolerate both oral rehydration solutions and sports drinks without issues [ex).
Importantly, electrolyte beverages may not be sufficient for treating severe dehydration. If diarrhea lasts more than 24 hours or if you’re unable to keep fluids down, seek medical advice (rx, rx).
Illnesses, such as vomiting and diarrhea, can cause you to lose fluid and electrolytes rapidly. Oral rehydration solutions are recommended for replenishment.
Can Help Prevent Heat Stroke
Hot environments put you at risk for a variety of heat-related illnesses, which range from mild heat rash to life-threatening heatstroke.
Normally, your body manages heat by releasing it through your skin and by sweating. However, this cooling system may begin to fail in hot weather, causing your body temperature to rise to dangerously high levels (rx).
The key to preventing heat-related illnesses is to limit your time in the heat. However, getting plenty of fluid and electrolytes is also extremely important to help your body stay cool (rx).
In hot environments, water and sports drinks are recommended for hydration over other beverages. Drinks containing caffeine such as soda, coffee and tea may worsen dehydration, as can alcohol (rx).
Prolonged exposure to heat puts you at risk for heatstroke. Consuming adequate amounts of fluids and electrolytes is recommended to help your body stay cool.
Electrolyte vs Regular Water
Adequate hydration is essential for overall health. Water is necessary for virtually all body functions, including transporting nutrients, regulating body temperature, and flushing out waste and toxins (rx).
Both electrolyte and regular water count towards your daily fluid needs, as do other beverages such as coffee, tea, fruit juices, and milk.
It’s a common misperception that electrolyte water is superior to regular water for hydration. In reality, it depends on the circumstances.
More specifically, electrolyte water may be beneficial if you’re at risk for quick losses of minerals. You may want to consider an electrolyte-enhanced beverage if:
- You’re exercising for more than one hour (rx).
- You sweat heavily during exercise (rx, rx).
- You’re ill with vomiting or diarrhea (rx).
- You will be exposed to heat for longer periods (rx, rx).
Outside of sports, hot weather and illness, regular water works just fine to meet your day-to-day hydration needs.
Though electrolyte water may have benefits under certain circumstances, regular water is sufficient for meeting your general hydration needs.
Electrolyte Water Is Easy to Make
Making electrolyte water is a cost-effective and healthy way to replace fluid and electrolytes when needed.
Here is an easy lemon-lime sports drink recipe to try at home:
Yield: 4 cups (946 ml)
Serving size: 1 cup (237 ml)
- 1/4 tsp of salt
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) of lemon juice
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) of lime juice
- 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) of unsweetened coconut water
- 2 cups (480 ml) of cold water
Unlike store-bought versions, this recipe provides a refreshing boost of electrolytes without added sugar or any artificial colors or flavors.
Electrolytes: Definition, Functions, Imbalance and Sources
Electrolytes are involved in many essential processes in your body.
They play a role in conducting nervous impulses, contracting muscles, keeping you hydrated and regulating your body’s pH levels (rx, rx, rx, rx).
Therefore, you need to get an adequate amount of electrolytes from your diet to keep your body functioning as it should.
What Are Electrolytes?
“Electrolyte” is the umbrella term for particles that carry a positive or negative electric charge (rx).
In nutrition, the term refers to essential minerals found in your blood, sweat and urine.
When these minerals dissolve in a fluid, they form electrolytes — positive or negative ions used in metabolic processes.
Electrolytes found in your body include:
These electrolytes are required for various bodily processes, including proper nerve and muscle function, maintaining acid-base balance and keeping you hydrated.
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge. They’re found in your blood, urine and sweat and are vital to specific processes that keep your body functioning as it should.
Needed to Maintain Vital Body Functions
Electrolytes are crucial to keeping your nervous system and muscles functioning and your internal environment balanced.
Nervous System Function
Your brain sends electrical signals through your nerve cells to communicate with the cells throughout your body.
These signals are called nervous impulses, and they’re generated by changes to the electrical charge of the nerve cell membrane (rx).
The changes occur due to the movement of the electrolyte sodium across the nerve cell membrane.
When this happens, it sets off a chain reaction, moving more sodium ions (and the change in charge) along the length of the nerve cell axon.
The electrolyte calcium is needed for muscle contraction (rx).
It allows muscle fibers to slide together and move over each other as the muscle shortens and contracts.
Magnesium is also required in this process so that the muscle fibers can slide outward and muscles can relax after contraction.
Water must be kept in the right amounts both inside and outside each cell in your body (rx).
Electrolytes, particularly sodium, help maintain fluid balance through osmosis.
Osmosis is a process where water moves through the wall of a cell membrane from a dilute solution (more water and fewer electrolytes) toward a more concentrated solution (less water and more electrolytes).
This prevents cells from bursting from being too full or shriveling up due to dehydration (rx).
Internal pH Levels
To stay healthy, your body needs to regulate its internal pH (rx).
pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a solution is. In your body, it’s regulated by chemical buffers, or weak acids and bases, which help minimize changes in your internal environment.
For example, your blood is regulated to stay at a pH of around 7.35 to 7.45. If it deviates from this, your body can’t function properly, and you become unwell.
Having the right balance of electrolytes is fundamental to maintaining your blood pH level rx).
Electrolytes are essential for keeping your nervous system and muscles functioning. They also ensure that your body’s internal environment is optimal by keeping you hydrated and helping regulate your internal pH.
Electrolyte Imbalances Are Bad for Your Health
In some circumstances, electrolyte levels in your blood can become too high or low, causing an imbalance (rx ).
Disturbances in electrolytes can have a harmful effect on your health and can even be fatal in rare cases ( rx).
Electrolyte imbalances often occur due to dehydration caused by excess heat, vomiting or diarrhea. This is why you should be mindful of replacing any lost fluids when it’s hot or when you’re sick (rx).
Some illnesses, including kidney disease, eating disorders and injuries like severe burns, can cause electrolyte imbalances as well (rx).
If you have a mild electrolyte disturbance, you probably won’t experience any symptoms.
However, more severe imbalances can cause symptoms like (rx, rx):
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Numbness and tingling
- Muscle weakness and cramping
If you suspect you have an electrolyte imbalance, be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
Electrolyte imbalances most commonly occur when people are severely dehydrated due to vomiting, diarrhea or excessive sweating. Severe imbalances can interfere with the way your body functions.
Do You Need More Electrolytes If You Sweat a Lot?
When you sweat, you lose both water and electrolytes, especially sodium and chloride.
As a result, long periods of exercise or activity, particularly in the heat, can cause significant electrolyte loss.
It’s estimated that sweat contains about 40–60 mmol of sodium per liter on average (rx).
But the actual amount of electrolytes lost through sweat can vary from person to person ( rx).
In the US, the maximum recommended intake for sodium is 2,300 mg per day — which is equivalent to 6 grams or 1 teaspoon of table salt (25).
Since around 90% of American adults consume way more than this, most people don’t need to replace sodium lost from sweat (rx).
However, certain populations, such as endurance athletes who are exercising for more than two hours or those who exercise in extreme heat, may want to consider drinking electrolyte-enriched sports drinks to replace their losses (rx).
For everyone else, getting the normal amount of sodium from foods and drinking water to remain hydrated is enough.
You lose water and electrolytes, particularly sodium, when you sweat. However, the sodium consumed through your diet is normally enough to cover any losses.
Dietary Sources of Electrolytes
The best way to reach and maintain electrolyte balance is through a healthy diet.
The main food sources of electrolytes are fruits and vegetables. However, in the Western diet, a common source of sodium and chloride is table salt.
Below are some foods that provide electrolytes (rx, rx, rx):
- Sodium: Pickled foods, cheese and table salt.
- Chloride: Table salt
- Potassium: Fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocado and sweet potato.
- Magnesium: Seeds and nuts.
- Calcium: Dairy products, fortified dairy alternatives and green leafy vegetables.
Electrolytes like bicarbonate are naturally produced in your body, so you don’t need to worry about including them in your diet.
Electrolytes are found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts and seeds.
Should You Supplement Your Diet With Electrolytes?
Some people drink electrolyte water or supplement with electrolytes like sodium and calcium to ensure they get enough.
However, a balanced diet that includes sources of electrolytes should suffice for most.
Your body can typically regulate electrolytes efficiently and keep them at the right levels.
But in some circumstances, such as during bouts of vomiting and diarrhea where electrolyte losses are excessive, supplementing with a rehydration solution that contains electrolytes could be useful (rx).
The amount you’ll need to consume will depend on your losses. Always read the instructions on over-the-counter replacement solutions.
Also note that unless you have low levels of electrolytes due to excessive losses, then supplementing can cause abnormal levels and possibly illness (rx).
It’s best to first consult your doctor or pharmacist before supplementing with electrolytes.
If you eat a balanced diet that contains good sources of electrolytes, supplementing is usually unnecessary.
Can’t Believe It’s Not Water — 5 Hydrating, Post-Workout Drinks
Let’s face it — water can, even at its best, taste boring. But proper post-workout hydration is crucial, especially if you want to recover properly and maintain endurance.
The good news is, water isn’t the only thing you can drink to replenish lost fluids. There are more options than just your go-to sports drink or bottle of water. For optimal hydration, here are five drinks that hydrate just as well as water — some options may even surprise you.
A case for chocolate carbs
There’s some good news for chocolate fans. Chocolate milk has double the carbohydrates compared to its plain counterpart, making it a great choice for post-workout recovery. Consuming carbs after exercise replenishes the muscles by replacing the glycogen lost during a workout. Pair carbs with protein and you have the best recovery potential for tired muscles.
Losing too many electrolytes through sweating can also cause an array of symptoms, including fatigue, muscle cramps, and mental confusion. Chocolate milk can help with that. Its high water content can hydrate and replenish essential electrolytes, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Studies have found chocolate milk to be very beneficial, particularly for cyclists, endurance athletes, and runners. One study from 2010 showed that chocolate milk improved recovery and subsequent performance in cyclists more effectively than an isocaloric carbohydrate drink. A 2011 study found milk more effective than water for combating exercise-induced dehydration in children.
Chocolate milk for post-workout has
- high water content
- essential electrolytes
- carbs to replace lost glycogen
We all know the many benefits of coconut water, including its high level of antioxidants and nutrients. So of course it’s no surprise that it’s a good post-workout beverage too. Like Gatorade and other popular sports drinks, coconut water contains high levels of electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium.
In 2012, one studyTrusted Source found coconut water to be just as beneficial for post-workout recovery as both sports drinks and water. But the findings also noted that drinking coconut water and coconut water concentrate could cause bloating and an upset stomach compared to sports drinks. So you may want to avoid throwing back a coconut water like you would a sports drink and instead hydrate slowly.
Coconut water also contains less sodium than sports drinks, which is critical for replenishing after sweaty workout sessions. While endurance athletes should probably reach for something else, coconut water is proven to be a great option for lighter workouts.
Coconut water for post-workout contains
- high levels of potassium and magnesium
- lots of antioxidants and nutrients
- less sodium than sports drinks
Recovery for those tired, sore muscles might just already be in your refrigerator. Antioxidant-rich cherry juice aids in reducing inflammation and benefits muscle recovery and function. That sounds like just the ticket for an effective post-workout recovery drink!
One 2010 studyTrusted Source examined marathon runners who drank cherry juice both before and after their run and concluded that the juice contributed to quicker muscle recovery. It does this by increasing antioxidants and decreasing inflammation and lipid peroxidation.
A study from 2006 backed up this claim, showing that cherry juice not only decreased muscle damage, but also significantly prevented strength loss when compared to a placebo. While cherry juice can be beneficial for both endurance athletes and everyday workouts alike, it’s important to find the unsweetened version and keep your fill to just one serving (10 ounces).
Cherry juice for post-workout
- aids in anti-inflammatory response
- decreases muscle damage
- prevents strength loss
Enhance relaxation with black and green tea
Your relaxing cup of tea has more benefits than you think. Research showsTrusted Source that tea, both green and black, can be effective in fat oxidation (the process of where fat are broken into smaller molecules that get stored and used for energy) during aerobic exercise and post-workout recovery. Much like cherry juice, tea’s high levels of antioxidants have been shown to help reduce muscle soreness and recover muscle strength quicker.
In one particular study from 2010, trained male athletes found many benefits from drinking tea after completing intensive sprints. Their bloodwork showed that they had higher antioxidant levels and lower cortisol levels after consuming tea rich in the antioxidant theaflavin. The tea also provided less DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) for the athletes.
Tea for post-workout
- is effective in fat oxidation
- reduces muscle soreness
- recovers muscle strength
You might be onto something if you love a good happy hour after your workout session. Beer, like sports drinks, contain carbs and electrolytes. And studies have concluded that a beer after exercise doesn’t have negative effects on hydration. In fact, people who consume beer moderately tend to be more active. Light beer with added sodium specifically has been shown to replace fluid lossTrusted Source after high-intensity cycling.
If you can get your hands on nonalcoholic beer, there’s wins there too. Nonalcoholic beer has been shown to reduce post-race inflammation in healthy male runners and upper respiratory tract illness incidence. Moderation is key here, though. Too much alcohol can suppress muscle protein synthesisTrusted Source, making your hard work at the gym all for naught.
Beer for post workout
- contains carbs and electrolytes
- replaces fluid loss
- may reduce post-workout inflammation
Is Gatorade Bad for You?
According to Gatorade’s website, the drink was “born in the lab” when researchers looked at why athletes were falling ill after strenuous exercise in the heat.
They found that these athletes were losing electrolytes and fluid with exertion but not replacing them. Gatorade was developed to replace crucial electrolytes and carbohydrates while hydrating at the same time.
While it’s marketed as a sports drink, athletes aren’t the only ones drinking Gatorade. Children drink it at lunch or after soccer practice, and it’s even developed a reputation as a hangover cure.
But while Gatorade may contain less sugar than soda, is it actually good for you?
The ‘good’ of Gatorade
When you exercise, it’s important to stay hydrated. Water is the most logical form of hydration. However, sports drinks like Gatorade contain sugar and electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Sports drinks can help replace what we lose during longer duration exercise, especially in the heat.
Electrolytes are minerals that maintain your body’s ionic balance. This balance is essential for nerve, muscle, and brain functioning. An imbalance may lead to an electrolyte disorder.
Examples of electrolytes include:
Electrolytes and carbohydrates help athletes refuel and rehydrate. This is what makes sports drinks popular. Electrolytes help regulate the body’s fluid balance while the carbs provide energy. Gatorade claims their product hydrates better than water because of these additional ingredients.
Some research backs their claims. A report from the University of California at Berkeley says that sports drinks might be better than water for children and athletes who engage in prolonged, vigorous physical activity for more than one hour, especially in hot conditions.
However, you should note that people exercising for less than 60 to 90 minutes may not need Gatorade to maintain or improve performance.
So, what about use of sports drinks for the average person?
The ‘bad’ of Gatorade
The vast majority of people who drink Gatorade aren’t athletes. And according to the Berkeley study, most people who drink sports drinks at least once a day aren’t as physically active as they should be.
A 20-ounce serving of Gatorade’s Thirst Quencher contains 36 grams of sugar. While that’s a bit less sugar per ounce than your average soda, it’s not exactly healthy.
In fact, Berkeley researchers say the sugar in sports drinks may be contributing to the child obesity epidemic by increasing caloric intake.
When consumed often, the sugar content of Gatorade can also contribute to tooth decay, especially in children.
For people who are less active, getting extra sugar and sodium throughout the day isn’t necessary or recommended. The extra calories from a sports drink could contribute to weight gain. The extra sodium could increase the risk of high blood pressure over time.
Gatorade’s low-calorie version, G2, substitutes acesulfame and sucralose for sugar. G2 contains 40 calories for every 16 ounces, which is fewer than half the calories of regular Gatorade. Research on the long-term safety of these artificial sweeteners is ongoing, but not yet conclusive.
Also of importance to note is that Gatorade contains food dyes, such as Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, and Yellow No. 5. These artificial dyes are derived from petroleum and may increase the risk of hyperactivity in children. They’ve also been linked to cancer trusted [rx].
While Gatorade can help you stay hydrated, it’s best to only drink it when needed.
For people who aren’t exercising for at least one hour, five days per week, water is the best bet for staying hydrated. Electrolytes coming from natural sources without added sugars and dyes are recommended.
Experts suggest parents limit their children’s consumption of sports drinks like Gatorade due to their sugar content and artificial colorings.
A researcher who’s worked with Gatorade in the past told NPR that Gatorade shouldn’t be singled out as the “bad guy.” She emphasized that parents need to evaluate sugar consumption from all sources when helping their child make the healthiest decisions.
For most children, water remains the best source of hydration. Foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are the best source of carbohydrates and electrolyte replacement. You can also make a healthier sports drink at home with this recipe.
Sweat Electrolytes Test
What Is a Sweat Electrolyte Test?
A sweat electrolyte test detects the amount of sodium and chloride in your sweat. It’s also called an iontophoretic sweat test or chloride sweat test. It’s used primarily for people who have symptoms of cystic fibrosis (CF).
The body’s natural chemistry requires the right balance of sodium and chloride. These chemicals help regulate fluid in the tissues. People with cystic fibrosis have a mutation on chromosome 7 that affects a protein called the “cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR).” This protein regulates the movement of chloride and sodium through the body.
When the CFTR protein doesn’t work properly or doesn’t exist, chloride isn’t able to move through the body the right way. This causes an abnormal amount of fluid in the lungs, small intestines, pancreatic ducts, bile ducts, and skin. People with CF have large amounts of chloride and sodium in their sweat. They can have two to five times more than other people.
Why the Sweat Electrolyte Test Is Used
Your doctor may order this test if you have symptoms of CF. These symptoms include:
- frequent respiratory infections
- chronic cough
- continual diarrhea
- infertility in some adult males
This test is usually performed on children with suspected symptoms of CF. Because this condition is hereditary, a child with a close relative with CF may also be tested.
Preparing for a Sweat Electrolyte Test
You don’t need to do much to prepare for this test. Avoid applying any creams or lotions to the skin 24 hours before the test.
If you have a small child, it’s a good idea to bring along some activities or toys to keep them occupied during the test.
Sweat Electrolyte Test Procedure
During the sweat electrolyte test, the clinician will place two electrodes on your upper arm. In infants, the electrodes are normally placed on the thigh. Each electrode is covered with a piece of gauze that’s been soaked in a drug called pilocarpine, which stimulates sweating.
Once the electrodes are attached, a small electrical current will flow to the site for five to 12 minutes. The clinician will then remove the electrodes, wash the arm or leg with distilled water, and place a paper disk over the test site.
Next, the disk is covered with wax to keep it sealed and keep the sweat from evaporating. After an hour, the clinician will remove the disk with the sweat and send it to a lab for analysis of the amount of sodium and chloride.
Overall, the electrode sweat should take 90 minutes.
Are There Any Risks Associated with a Sweat Electrolyte Test?
There are no risks associated with this test. The electrolyte sweat test is not painful. You may feel a slight tingle as the electrodes pass a small current through the site where they are attached. The area may still sweat after the test is finished, and the testing area may be red for a brief period.
Sweat Electrolyte Test Results
It may take one or two days to get test results from the electrolyte sweat test.
For infants 6 months and under, a chloride level of 29 mmol/L or less indicates CF is unlikely. A chloride level above 60 mmol/L means it is likely that the child has CF. If the chloride level is between 20 and 59 mmol/L, it means that CF is possible and the test could need to be repeated.
Children and Adults
For children and adults, a chloride level of 39 mmol/L or less indicates CF is unlikely. A chloride level above 60 mmol/L means it is likely that the child has CF. If the chloride level is between 40 and 59 mmol/L, it means that CF is possible and the test may need to be repeated.
The sweat electrolyte test is very reliable and accurate. It’s the gold standard in diagnosing cystic fibrosis. Since cystic fibrosis can lead to other complications, it’s very important to detect it early.
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