Guide to Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge and conduct electrical signals throughout our bodies. They help us regulate water distribution, maintain acid-base balance, and transmit nerve impulses. They also contribute to energy generation and blood clotting.  Fluid and electrolyte preparations are the most commonly prescribed medications in hospitals and other healthcare settings. It is crucial that nurses understand the water and electrolyte balance as this is crucial for body homeostasis.

Guide to Electrolytes

Potassium (K)
  • Main intracellular fluid (ICF) cation

  • Affects a cell’s electrical status when permeating cell membranes

  • Regulates cell excitability

  • Balances ICF osmolality and ICF osmotic pressure

Magnesium (Mg)
  • A leading ICF cation

  • Contributes to enzymatic and metabolic processes (i.e. protein synthesis)

  • Modifies neural communication, heart function and skeletal muscle response

Phosphorus (P)
  • Main ICF anion

  • Acts as a hydrogen buffer and acid/base balance

  • Formation of red blood cells

  • Supports energy storage and carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism

Sodium (Na)
  • Main extracellular fluid (ECF) cation

  • Activates nerve and muscle cells

  • Helps maintain acid-base balance

  • Helps govern normal osmolality

  • Maintains fluid balance in the blood

Chloride (Cl)
  • Main ECF anion

  • Helps maintain normal ECF osmolality

  • Affects body pH

  • Plays a vital role in maintaining acid-base balance; combines with hydrogen ions to produce hydrochloric acid

Calcium (Ca)
  • A major cation in teeth and bones; found in fairly equal concentrations in ICF and ECF

  • Helps cells maintain their shape and adhere to one another

  • Acts as an enzyme activator within cells

  • Aids blood coagulation

  • Affects cell membrane permeability and firing level

  • Important role in muscle contraction

  • Inhibitory affect on neurons

Bicarbonate (HCO3-)
  • Present in ECF

  • Primary function is regulating acid-base balance

  • Affected by food, medications, kidney and lung function

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