Sodium levels are tightly controlled in a healthy individual by regulation of urine concentration and an intact thirst mechanism. Hypernatremia (defined as a serum sodium level >145 mEq/L) is rare in patients with preserved thirst mechanism. When hypernatremia does occur, it is associated with a high mortality rate (>50% in most studies).
Given this high mortality rate, the emergency physician must be able to recognize and treat this condition. This article discusses the patients in whom hypernatremia should be suspected and how to initiate workup and administer appropriate treatment.
In general, hypernatremia can be caused by derangement of the thirst response or altered behavioral response thereto (primarily psychiatric patients, and elderly patients who are institutionalized), impaired renal concentrating mechanism (diabetes insipidus [DI]) secondary to kidney pathology (nephrogenic DI) or difficulty with the neurohormonal control of this concentrating mechanism (central DI), or by losses of free water from other sources.