What is hypernatremia?

Hypernatremia is how doctors describe you having too much sodium in your body. Sodium is a nutrient that your body uses in your blood, lymph fluids and within your cells. But you have to have the right amount in relation to water in your body. Otherwise, your body's systems might not work the way they should. This condition usually isn't very serious. If your doctor diagnoses it early, you have even better chances of a fast recovery.

Causes of hypernatremia

Hypernatremia can happen when your body loses too much water or has too much sodium. The balance of sodium in your cells gets higher than what's normal. This can happen if you don't drink enough water or if you sweat a lot and become dehydrated. Having severe diarrhea or vomiting can also dehydrate you and lead to hypernatremia. If you consume large quantities of high-sodium foods, such as soy sauce, you can develop the condition too.

Risk factors for hypernatremia

Older adults have the most risk for getting hypernatremia. When you get older, you can lose your sense of thirst. You may also be more likely to develop illnesses that can make you dehydrated. People with dementia or uncontrolled diabetes are also at risk. If you suffered large burns on your skin or have kidney disease, you're also more likely to have hypernatremia.

Symptoms of hypernatremia

The main symptom of hypernatremia is thirst. This can be difficult to notice if you're lacking the ability to communicate or feel your thirst. Sometimes people who are very thirsty also get frustrated and upset. Other symptoms of hypernatremia include:

  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Being very tired
  • Muscle twitching or spasms

Diagnosis of hypernatremia

If you're experiencing extreme thirst or any other symptom, your doctor may start with a physical exam. They'll also ask you about your medical history. The doctor may then have you give a urine sample. A lab technician can check this sample for high levels of sodium. Sometimes, your doctor might want you to do blood tests to check your sodium levels. If you don't respond well to treatment, your doctor may need to do more tests. This helps them figure out what other health condition is causing your high sodium levels.

Treatments for hypernatremia

Because this condition can come on quite suddenly, your doctor will first begin to help you rehydrate by giving you water. To avoid complications, it's important to treat hypernatremia that has come on in the last 24 hours over the following 24 hours. The challenge is to not drink so much water so fast that you start to develop other conditions. You need to start rehydrating — but gradually.

Other treatments for hypernatremia include:

  • IV fluids if you can't drink water
  • Stopping any drugs that may be causing the condition

Doctors should bring water back into your system slowly to decrease your sodium levels over 24 hours. If someone with hypernatremia consumes water too fast, there's a risk of death.

Recovery from hypernatremia

In general, the recovery for hypernatremia is quick. You may be able to return to your normal activities before too long. Recovery is faster and easier if your high sodium levels are diagnosed early.

Sometimes, you can go through treatment at home. But, staying in the hospital can also allow your doctor to look for any other underlying problems that may be causing this condition. If your symptoms don't lessen or if they increase, talk with your doctor immediately.

If your doctor tells you that your ability to recognize thirst is low, it helps to create healthy habits. You may want to start drinking more water throughout the day whether you feel thirsty or not. There are apps for smartphones to remind you to keep drinking water. You might find that these are helpful for you. Talk with your doctor about other ways you can stay hydrated, like eating hydrating fruits and vegetables.

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