[ ih-lek-truh-lahyt ]
/ ɪˈlɛk trəˌlaɪt /
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Physical Chemistry.
  1. Also called electrolytic conductor . a conducting medium in which the flow of current is accompanied by the movement of matter in the form of ions.
  2. any substance that dissociates into ions when dissolved in a suitable medium or melted and thus forms a conductor of electricity.
Physiology. any of certain inorganic compounds, mainly sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate, that dissociate in biological fluids into ions capable of conducting electrical currents and constituting a major force in controlling fluid balance within the body.
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Origin of electrolyte

First recorded in 1825–35; electro- + -lyte1

OTHER WORDS FROM electrolyte

non·e·lec·tro·lyte, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is an electrolyte?

An electrolyte is a substance that conducts electricity when melted or dissolved in water. The individual ions that such a substance breaks into are also called electrolytes.

Sodium chloride, that is, table salt, is one example of an electrolyte. Sodium chloride is made of sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). If you dump a bunch of salt on a table, it won’t conduct electricity. The salt molecules are tightly held together and don’t have electrical charges to help move (conduct) the electric current.

However, if you put salt into water, it will dissolve and the sodium and chlorine molecules will be free to drift apart from each other. The sodium and chlorine in salt are ions, which means they have electrical charges (sodium has a positive charge and chlorine has a negative charge). Because they are now freely moving ions, they can conduct electricity through the water.

Electrolytes are important to your body because your brain sends electrical signals through your nerve cells to tell the cells in your body what to do. These signals need a conductor to transport them through and across cells. The electrolyte sodium acts as this conductor, carrying these signals through nerve cells.

Maintaining a good supply of electrolytes is important to keep your brain communicating with your other organs and muscles.

Why is electrolyte important?

The first records of the word electrolyte come from around 1825. It combines electro, meaning “electricity,” and lyte, a combining form that denotes something is subjected to a certain process. Electrolytes are subjected to the process of electrolysis, which is a movement of an electric current.

Let’s look at some specific examples of how electrolytes keep your body going.

In addition to helping your brain communicate with other parts of your body, electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride help with other bodily functions. Electrolytes help muscles like those in your heart contract, help cells from shriveling up by making sure they retain water through osmosis, and they ensure your blood keeps a healthy pH level, a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution (in this case, your blood).

Did you know … ?

Electrolytes are often lost through sweat. Energy drinks like Gatorade are high in electrolytes because they are designed to offset this loss in athletes who sweat heavily.

What are real-life examples of electrolytes?

Most people are familiar with electrolytes from learning about their bodily functions in science class (or from sports drink commercials).


What other words are related to electrolyte?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Electrolytes do not conduct electricity and prevent the movement of an electric current.

How to use electrolyte in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for electrolyte

/ (ɪˈlɛktrəʊˌlaɪt) /

a solution or molten substance that conducts electricity
  1. a chemical compound that dissociates in solution into ions
  2. any of the ions themselves
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Medical definitions for electrolyte

[ ĭ-lĕktrə-līt′ ]

A chemical compound that ionizes when dissolved or molten to produce an electrically conductive medium.
Any of various ions, such as sodium or chloride, required by cells to regulate the electric charge and flow of water molecules across the cell membrane.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Scientific definitions for electrolyte

[ ĭ-lĕktrə-līt′ ]

A melted or dissolved compound that has broken apart into ions (anions and cations). Applying an electric field across an electrolyte causes the anions and cations to move in opposite directions, thereby conducting electrical current while gradually separating the ions. See also electrodialysis electrolysis.
Any of these ions found in body fluids. Electrolytes are needed by cells to regulate the flow of water molecules across cell membranes.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Cultural definitions for electrolyte

[ (i-lek-truh-leyet) ]

A substance that can serve as a conductor for an electric current (see also current) when it is dissolved in a solution. Electrolytes are found in the blood and tissue fluids of the body.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.