Low sodium level is a condition in which the amount of sodium (salt) in the blood is lower than normal. The medical name of this condition is hyponatremia.
Sodium is found mostly in the body fluids outside the cells. It is very important for maintaining blood pressure. Sodium is also needed for nerves, muscles, and other body tissues to work properly.
When the amount of sodium in fluids outside cells drops below normal, water moves into the cells to balance the levels. This causes the cells to swell with too much water. Brain cells are especially sensitive to swelling, and this causes many of the symptoms of low sodium.
With low sodium level (hyponatremia), the imbalance of water to salt is caused by one of three conditions:
- Euvolemic hyponatremia -- total body water increases, but the body's sodium content stays the same
- Hypervolemic hyponatremia -- both sodium and water content in the body increase, but the water gain is greater
- Hypovolemic hyponatremia -- water and sodium are both lost from the body, but the sodium loss is greater
Low sodium can be caused by:
- Burns that affect a large area of the body
- Diuretic medicines, which increase urine output
- Heart failure
- Kidney diseases
- Liver cirrhosis
- Syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion (SIADH)
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a complete physical examination to help determine the cause of your symptoms. Blood and urine tests will be done.
Lab tests that can confirm and help diagnose low sodium include:
The cause of low sodium must be diagnosed and treated. If cancer is the cause of the condition, then radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove the tumor may correct the sodium imbalance.
Other treatments depend on the specific type of hyponatremia.
Treatments may include:
- Fluids through a vein (IV)
- Medication to relieve symptoms
- Water restriction
Outcome depends on the condition that is causing the problem. Low sodium that occurs in less than 48 hours (acute hyponatremia), is more dangerous than low sodium that develops slowly over time. When sodium level falls slowly over days or weeks (chronic hyponatremia), the brain cells have time to adjust and swelling may be minimal.
In severe cases, low sodium can lead to:
- Decreased consciousness, hallucinations or coma
- Brain herniation
When to Contact a Medical Professional
When your body’s sodium level drops too much, it can be a life-threatening emergency. Call your provider right away if you have symptoms of this condition.
Treating the condition that is causing low sodium can help.
If you play sports or do other vigorous activity, drink fluids such as sports drinks that contain electrolytes to keep your body's sodium level in a healthy range.
Hyponatremia; Dilutional hyponatremia; Euvolemic hyponatremia; Hypervolemic hyponatremia; Hypovolemic hyponatremia
Pfennig CL, Slovis CM. Electrolyte disorders. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 125.
Update Date 4/30/2015
Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.