Hypernatremia is an electrolyte disturbance consisting of an elevated sodium level in the blood (compare to hyponatremia, meaning a low sodium level). The most common cause of hypernatremia is not an excess of sodium, but a relative deficit of free water in the body. For this reason, hypernatremia is often synonymous with the less precise term dehydration.
Water is lost from the body in a variety of ways, including perspiration, insensible losses from breathing, and in the feces and urine. If the amount of water ingested consistently falls below the amount of water lost, the serum sodium level will begin to rise, leading to hypernatremia. Rarely, hypernatremia can result from massive salt ingestion, such as may occur from drinking seawater.
Ordinarily, even a small rise in the serum sodium concentration above the normal range results in a strong sensation of thirst, an increase in free water intake, and correction of the abnormality. Therefore, hypernatremia most often occurs in people such as infants, those with impaired mental status, or the elderly, who may have an intact thirst mechanism but are unable to ask for or obtain water.
Inadequate intake of water, typically in elderly or otherwise disabled patients who are unable to take in water as their thirst dictates. This is the most common cause of hypernatremia.
Inappropriate excretion of water, often in the urine, which can be due to medications like diuretics or lithium or can be due to a medical condition called diabetes insipidus
Intake of a hypertonic fluid (a fluid with a higher concentration of solutes than the remainder of the body). This is relatively uncommon, though it can occur after a vigorous resuscitation where a patient receives a large volume of a concentrated sodium bicarbonate solution. Ingesting seawater also causes hypernatremia because seawater is hypertonic.
Clinical manifestations of hypernatremia can be subtle, consisting of lethargy, weakness, irritability, and edema. With more severe elevations of the sodium level, seizures and coma may occur.
Severe symptoms are usually due to acute elevation of the plasma sodium concentration to above 158 mEq/L (normal is typically about 135-145 mEq/L). Values above 180 mEq/L are associated with a high mortality rate, particularly in adults. However such high levels of sodium rarely occur without severe coexisting medical conditions.
The cornerstone of treatment is administration of free water to correct the relative water deficit. Water can be replaced orally or intravenously. However, overly rapid correction of hypernatremia is potentially very dangerous. The body (in particular the brain) adapts to the higher sodium concentration. Rapidly lowering the sodium concentration with free water, once this adaptation has occurred, causes water to flow into brain cells and causes them to swell. This can lead to cerebral edema, potentially resulting in seizures, permanent brain damage, or death. Therefore, significant hypernatremia should be treated carefully by a physician or other medical professional with experience in treatment of electrolyte imbalances.