An electrolyte is a medium containing ions that is electrically conducting through the movement of those ions, but not conducting electrons. This includes most soluble salts, acids, and bases dissolved in a polar solvent, such as water. Upon dissolving, the substance separates into cations and anions, which disperse uniformly throughout the solvent. Solid-state electrolytes also exist. In medicine and sometimes in chemistry, the term electrolyte refers to the substance that is dissolved.
Electrically, such a solution is neutral. If an electric potential is applied to such a solution, the cations of the solution are drawn to the electrode that has an abundance of electrons, while the anions are drawn to the electrode that has a deficit of electrons. The movement of anions and cations in opposite directions within the solution amounts to a current. Some gases, such as hydrogen chloride (HCl), under conditions of high temperature or low pressure can also function as electrolytes.[clarification needed] Electrolyte solutions can also result from the dissolution of some biological (e.g., DNA, polypeptides) or synthetic polymers (e.g., polystyrene sulfonate), termed "polyelectrolytes", which contain charged functional groups. A substance that dissociates into ions in solution or in the melt acquires the capacity to conduct electricity. Sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate in a liquid phase are examples of electrolytes.
In medicine, electrolyte replacement is needed when a person has prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, and as a response to sweating due to strenuous athletic activity. Commercial electrolyte solutions are available, particularly for sick children (such as oral rehydration solution, Suero Oral, or Pedialyte) and athletes (sports drinks). Electrolyte monitoring is important in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia.
In clinical medicine, mentions of electrolytes usually refer metonymically to the ions, and (especially) to their concentrations (in blood, serum, urine, or other fluids). Thus, mentions of electrolyte levels usually refer to the various ion concentrations, not to the fluid volumes.
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