Chapter 8. Intravenous Therapy

8.4 IV Fluids

Patients are prescribed an IV solution (fluids) based on their electrolyte and fluid volume status. IV fluids are commonly categorized as colloids and crystalloids. Colloid solutions contain large molecules that cannot pass through semi-permeable membranes and are used to expand intravascular volume by drawing fluid from extravascular space via high osmotic pressure. Examples of colloid solutions are albumin, dextrans, and hydroxyethyl starches (Crawford & Harris, 2011). Crystalloid solutions contain solutes such as electrolytes or dextrose, which are easily mixed and dissolvable in solution. Crystalloids contain small molecules that flow easily across semi-permeable membranes, which allows for transfer from the bloodstream into the cells and tissues (Crawford & Harris, 2011). They may increase fluid volume in interstitial and intravascular space. Examples of crystalloid solutions are isotonic, hypotonic, and hypertonic solutions.

Isotonic solutions have an osomolality of 250 to 375 mOsm/L. Isotonic solutions have the same osmotic pressure as plasma, creating constant pressure inside and outside the cells, which causes the cells to remain the same (they will not shrink or swell) and does not cause any fluid shifts within compartments. Isotonic solutions are useful to increase intravascular volume, and are utilized to treat vomiting, diarrhea, shock, and metabolic acidosis, and for resuscitation purposes and the administration of blood and blood products. Examples of isotonic solutions include normal saline (0.9% sodium chloride), lactated Ringer’s solution, 5% dextrose in water (D5W), and Ringer’s solution. It is important to monitor patients receiving isotonic solutions for fluid volume overload (hypervolemia) (Crawford & Harris, 2011).

Hypotonic solutions have a lower concentration, or tonicity, of solutes and have an osomolality equal to or less than 250 mOsm/L. The infusion of hypotonic solutions lowers the osmolality within the vascular space and causes fluid to shift to the intracellular and interstitial space. Cells will swell but may also delete fluid within the vascular space. Examples of hypotonic solutions include 0.45% sodium chloride, 0.33% sodium chloride, 2.5% dextrose in water, and 0.2% sodium chloride. Monitor for hypovolemia and hypotension related to fluid shifting out of the vascular space, and do not administer to patients with increased intracranial pressure (ICP), as it may exacerbate cerebral edema. Use cautiously in patients with burns, liver failure, and traumas (Crawford & Harris, 2011).

Hypertonic solutions have a higher concentration, or tonicity, of solutes and have an osomolality equal to or greater than 375 mOsm/L. The osmotic pressure gradient draws water out of the intracellular space into the extracellular space. Examples of hypertonic solutions include D5W with 0.45% sodium chloride, D10W, and 3% sodium chloride. Hypertonic solutions may cause intravascular fluid volume overload and pulmonary edema, and they should not be used for an extended period of time. Hypertonic solutions should not be used in patients with heart or renal disease who are dehydrated (Crawford & Harris, 2011).

Read the article IV Fluids: What Nurses Need to Know by Crawford and Harris (2011) for more in-depth information regarding colloid and crystalloid solutions.

Although all IV fluids must be administered carefully, hypertonic solutions are additionally risky.

An order for IV fluids may be continuous or as a bolus, depending on the needs of the patient. IV solutions are available in 25 ml to 1000 ml bags. The frequency, duration, amount, and additives to solution must be ordered by a physician or nurse practitioner; for example, an order may be “give NS at 125 ml/hr” or “D50.45%NS with 20 MEq KCl @ 75cc/hr’.

Patients may also have medications such as potassium chloride, thiamine, and multivitamins added to IV solutions. Check your regulator’s scope of practice guidelines and your institution’s policies and guidelines to determine if you need an order to discontinue an IV infusion / saline lock or if you as an RN can do this within your autonomous scope of practice (BCCNP, 2018; Perry et al., 2014).

Critical Thinking Exercises

  1. Describe what is meant by and indications for isotonic, hypotonic, and hypertonic IV solutions.


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Clinical Procedures for Safer Patient Care by Thompson Rivers University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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