Disorders of fluids, electrolytes and acid–base

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10.5 Disorders of fluids, electrolytes and acid–base


The following physiological differences apply to children:13

Clinical assessment

In assessing the degree of dehydration, sequential body weight measurement is the most accurate measure of water loss. However, previous normal body weight is seldom available in the emergency department (ED).

Capillary refill times were studied in 32 children, aged 1–26 weeks, admitted to hospital with dehydration.4 The authors recommended a cut-off value of 2 seconds, below which minimal or no dehydration exists. A capillary refill time of 2–3 seconds suggests a 50–100 mL kg−1 water deficit; 3–4 seconds 100–120 mL kg−1, and over 4 seconds >150 mL kg−1. However, ambient temperature affects capillary return.5

In children less than 4 years old clinicians overestimate the degree of dehydration by 3.2%.6 Other studies have suggested that the sensitivity of clinical examination for diagnosing dehydration is 74, 33 and 70% for mild, moderate and severe dehydration respectively.7 See Tables 10.5.2 and 10.5.3 for clinical signs associated with dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.8

Table 10.5.3 Signs of hypernatraemia and hypokalaemia in dehydration
Cutaneous signs
Warm, ‘doughy’ texture
Possibly decreased skin-fold tenting in severe dehydration, thereby giving appearance of lower level of dehydration
Neurological signs
Lethargy common, but marked irritability
when touched
Ileus with abdominal distension
Cardiac arrhythmias

Source: Based on Burkhart, 1999.8

Plasma bicarbonate concentration may be the single most useful laboratory test; a level less than 17 mmol L−1 indicates moderate or severe dehydration. Addition of this to the clinical scale improves the sensitivity of diagnosing moderate and severe dehydration to 90 and 100% respectively. Plasma bicarbonate was a better predictor than plasma urea and creatinine.7

Shock is a disorder characterised by a decrease in end-organ oxygenation and/or perfusion. This does not solely depend on blood pressure and pulse rate. Blood pressure can be maintained in the infant with shock being present. Hypotension is a preterminal sign.

End-organ perfusion can best be assessed by the conscious state, capillary return, urine output and degree of metabolic acidosis.

Haemorrhagic shock

Clinical signs are of value in assessing degree of haemorrhage.9 See Table 10.5.4. Hypotension is a preterminal sign.

Table 10.5.4 Classes of haemorrhagic shock9
Class of haemorrhage Blood volume lost (%) Signs
I <15 Minimal, slight tachycardia
II 15–30 Tachycardia, tachypnoea, diminished pulse pressure, systolic BP unchanged, prolonged capillary refill, minimal decrease in urine output, anxiety
III 30–40 Tachycardia, tachypnoea, decreased BP, decreased urine output, mental status changes
IV >40 Hypotension, anuria, loss of consciousness

Source: Based on Morgan and O’Neill,1998.9


Most children with gastroenteritis do not warrant an IV line or investigations. However, the following biochemical tests should be performed in children presenting with shock or significant problems of water and electrolyte imbalance that require intravenous treatment or where such disorders are expected, e.g. respiratory disease, renal disease, liver disease and encephalopathy:

Venous or intraosseous blood samples give a satisfactory measurement of electrolytes, and of respiratory and metabolic acid–base status.

A urine sample aspirated from a cotton wool ball placed at the perineum is satisfactory for all measurements except urine calcium.

Plasma osmolality can be calculated as well as measured in order to detect an osmolar gap.


If measured osmolality is greater than this figure by 5 mosmol kg−1 or more, then an unmeasured solute is present such as an alcohol, e.g. ethanol or ethylene glycol. Ingestion of alcohols may cause a high anion gap ketoacidosis and hypoglycaemia.

Accurate timed urine collections are rarely possible in the ED. A useful indication of urine flow rate can be obtained from a spot urine sample, based on the relatively constant creatinine excretion between individuals. For example, a urine creatinine of 2000 μmol L−1 represents urine flow of 2–4 mL kg−1 hr−1, and 8000 μmol L−1 represents 0.5–1 mL kg−1 hr−1.

Fractional sodium excretion (FENa) is a useful diagnostic tool. It represents the proportion of filtered sodium that is not reabsorbed and is <1% in health. It is given by the formula:


A high FENa suggests any cause of natriuresis, including acute renal failure, a renal salt-wasting disorder or diuretics. Hyperosmolar urine with high urine creatinine and low FENa suggests dehydration of non-renal cause. Diabetes insipidus causes hypo-osmolar urine (often <100 mosmol kg−1), low urine creatinine (often <1000 μmol L−1) and plasma hyperosmolality. Plasma urea is high in most cases of dehydration because of reduced urea clearance.


Replacement of circulating volume

Also called volume resuscitation, this is an urgent priority in any cause of hypovolaemic shock, e.g. haemorrhage, sepsis, burns, anaphylaxis and dehydration. It requires isotonic fluids (Table 10.5.5). Hypotonic fluids are inappropriate. Crystalloids are inexpensive and readily available. Colloids have a theoretical advantage of increasing the colloid oncotic pressure of plasma, thus helping to maintain fluid in the vascular space. However, in a capillary leak syndrome such as septic shock, the colloid may pass into the interstitial space. In practice, albumin in saline solution has been tested against 0.9% saline in adult intensive care patients. There was no difference in mortality or intensive care unit (ICU) stay between the two therapies. More saline was administered than albumin (ratio 1.38:1), suggesting that albumin may be superior in patients where excessive water administration may be harmful, e.g. pulmonary oedema, pulmonary hypertension and encephalopathy. There was a suggestion that albumin may be superior in sepsis but inferior in traumatic brain injury.10 A problem with saline is that it has no bicarbonate and relatively high chloride, so it can lead to hyperchloraemic acidosis. Hartmann’s and Ringer’s solutions are more physiological, containing buffer and calcium.1012


In dehydration, the loss of fluid and electrolytes is similar to the composition of extracellular fluid; this is predominantly where the loss comes from. Thus the deficit is best replaced with a solution that approximates extracellular fluid, i.e. 0.9% saline (normal saline).

However, as fluid replacement is not an exact science, and due to the fact that maintenance fluids also need to be given, a solution somewhere between 0.9% saline and 4% dextrose plus 0.18% saline is given. Saline (0.45%) with added glucose (2.5%) and sometimes potassium would be appropriate. Clinical parameters and serum biochemistry are sequentially measured and the fluid is adjusted accordingly.


An initial bolus or boluses of 20 mL kg−1 to treat shock may be part of this initial fluid deficit.

Saline (but not Hartmann’s, Ringer’s and Plasmalyte) tends to cause a metabolic acidosis because of a dilution of bicarbonate by chloride, the principal extracellular buffer, and a relative hyperchloraemia.

Those containing lactate, gluconate or acetate are more physiological solutions, the buffer being rapidly metabolised to bicarbonate.

Glucose may be added to the sodium chloride preparations.

How much fluid?

Enough fluid should be given in shock to result in the improvement and disappearance of the signs of shock.

The blood volume of an infant is approximately 70–80 mL kg−1. Decompensation in haemorrhagic shock starts to occur in class 3 haemorrhagic shock. At this stage it can be presumed that at least 30% or approximately 20 mL kg−1 of blood has been lost.

Thus a bolus dose of 20 mL kg−1 is a logical bolus dose of fluid with which to begin resuscitation.

However, in dehydration and sepsis much larger fluid losses and shifts have occurred and the total body water and extracellular fluid are likely to be depleted far more than 20 mL kg−1. If crystalloid is given, not all of the fluid stays in the intravascular space. Capillary leakiness and third space losses in sepsis contribute to the ongoing loss of fluid from the vascular space.

Thus in dehydration repeated boluses may be necessary. Give a bolus, wait 10 minutes and reassess the patient again. Do not wait 10 minutes if it is clear that more than 20 mL kg−1 will be required.1315

In severe sepsis such as meningococcaemia, 80–100 mL kg−1 may be required. Good evidence exists that early and vigorous resuscitation improves morbidity and mortality in paediatric sepsis and meningococcaemia.16 The volume and the rapidity of resuscitation seems to be more important than the type of fluid used.1719

In haemorrhagic shock, boluses of 10 mL kg−1 of whole blood or packed cells may be given. If fresh frozen plasma (FFP) is required this can also be given in 10 mL kg−1 aliquots.