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An electrolyte is a substance that, when dissolved in water, gives a solution that can conduct electricity. In your body, these are most often dissolved salts that contain sodium and potassium ions. Electrolytes are also called ionic solutes.
The concentration of dissolved salts (electrolytes) in your blood affects all of your bodily functions. For example, sodium and potassium ions are vital to the central nervous system, but too much (or too little) of either can kill you.
Having the wrong concentration or ratio of electrolytes can lead to fatigue, light-headedness, collapse and death among other nasty things.
When the electrolyte concentration of your blood is higher than that inside your cells, we call this a hypertonic state. Through a process called osmosis, water leaves your cells, making them contract and distort (crenation). Eventually, they cease to function.
When the electrolyte concentration of your blood is lower than that inside your cells, we call this a hypotonic state. Water enters your cells, and they swell until they burst and die (lysis).
For these reasons, intravenous (I.V.) solutions and injections typically use water that has the same electrolyte concentration as human blood (an isotonic solution) rather than pure water. When a patient's electrolytes are out of balance then administration of hypotonic fluids or diuretics may be required.
Exposure to or ingestion of certain chemicals such as diuretics may affect the electrolyte balance of the body. Likewise, dehydration or prostation from working in hot environments can creat a hypertonic state. Electrolyte imbalance can be a life-threatening condition if not immediately treated.
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See also: acidosis, aqueous.
Additional definitions from Google and OneLook.
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