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Adult intravenous fluids

Background knowledge

Fluid compartments (e.g. in 70kg patient):


Normal maintenance requirements if NBM

Depends on the patient’s weight:

(e.g. for an average 70kg patient over 24 hours):  

  • H2O: 1.5ml/kg/hour (2.5L)
  • Na+: 1-2mmol/kg/day (70-140mmol)
  • K+: 0.5-1mmol/kg/day (35-70mmol)
  • NB: urine output should be >0.5ml/kg/hour (>35ml/hour)

Contents of intravenous fluids (mmol/L)

ClassFluidNa+ClK+Other contents
NORMAL PLASMA 135-145100-1103.5-5.0 
Crystalloid5% Dextrose000-40*50g glucose (170 kcal)
CrystalloidDextrose-saline 4%/0.18%30300-40*40g glucose (130 kcal)
CrystalloidHartmann’s solution131111529mmol/L lactate (metabolises into HCO3-)
Crystalloid0.9% saline1541540-40*
Contents of intravenous fluids

* there are pre-prepared versions of 5% dextrose, dextrose-saline and 0.9% saline with potassium (20 or 40mmol/L).

5% dextrose

This is given instead of pure water. The glucose is present to maintain initial osmolality but is quickly used up and plays no role thereafter (the calorific content is negligible). It is used as part of a maintenance fluid regimen, when water is required without electrolytes. It is of no use in treating hypovolaemia because it is not physiological (i.e. similar to plasma) and distributes widely across all fluid compartments. Administering too much, too quickly can cause hyponatraemia.


This is a good choice for maintenance fluids because, when given alone at the correct maintenance rate (i.e. at 1.5ml/kg/hour), it will provide approximately the correct sodium requirement over 24 hours. Because the sodium content is much lower than that of plasma, however, it is of no use in treating hypovolaemia. Administering too much, too quickly can cause hyponatraemia.

Hartmann’s solution

This is the most physiological fluid and so is very good for replacing plasma loss, e.g. GI losses or during surgery. However, this does not mean it is good for normal maintenance fluids alone, as 3L Hartmann’s solution over 24 hours would give three times too much sodium and not enough potassium.

NB: Hartmann’s solution is also known as Ringer’s lactate solution, and similar solutions are available, such as Plasmalyte.

0.9% saline

This is much more physiological than dextrose as it contains sodium chloride, but is not as physiological as Hartmann’s solution because it contains a greater concentration than plasma. Also, be warned: too much chloride can cause a hyperchloraemic metabolic acidosis; and it can also cause renal afferent arteriole vasoconstriction (increases risk of acute kidney injury).

NB: fluids are given intravenously and so enter the intravascular space. However, depending on the osmolality, the fluid will be distributed across the various fluid compartments (intravascular, interstitial, intracellular) to different extents, as above. The aim of fluid resuscitation in hypovolaemic patients is to expand the intravascular volume by administering fluids that stay in the intravascular space, such as Hartmann’s solution, 0.9% saline and colloids.         

Choosing a fluid regimen

Overall fluid requirements

Overall fluid requirements = maintenance fluids + replacement of fluid losses 

The different components of the above formula should be considered separately because each may need a different fluid prescribed. When prescribing fluids, you need to be clear about what type of fluid you are prescribing, how much of it, and why. The type and quantity of maintenance fluid is based on the patient’s fluid and electrolyte requirements (dependent on their weight), and the type and quantity of replacement fluid is based on the type and quantity of fluid lost. You will usually be giving fluids for either maintenance or replacement rather than both – but you need to be clear in your own head what you are doing!

Maintenance fluids

The type of fluid does not matter provided that, over 24 hours, it approximately matches the patient’s weight requirements of water, sodium and potassium. Calculate how much of all of these are needed and choose fluids which match these requirements closest. By convention, bags are given over multiples of 2 hours. 

Note, there are problems with the traditional fluid regimen of ‘1 salty + 2 sweet’:

  • 1L saline 0.9% + 20mmol potassium chloride (over 8 hours)
  • 1L dextrose 5% + 20mmol potassium chloride (over 8 hours)
  • 1L dextrose 5% + 20mmol potassium chloride (over 8 hours)

This gives 3L H20, 154mmol Na+ and 60mmol K+. This is only acceptable for a very large patient because it provides about 0.5L more water and more sodium than is required for an average patient. The fluids you give should always reflect the patient’s weight. Thus for a 70kg patient, maintenance regimens need to provide approximately 2.5L fluid, 70-140mmol Na+, and 35-70mmol K+).

Example prescriptions therefore include:

  • 1L dextrose-saline with 20mmol K(over 10 hours) 1L dextrose-saline with 20mmol K(over 10 hours) + 500ml dextrose-saline (over 4 hours)
  • 500ml saline 0.9% with 20mmol K(over 6 hours) + 1L dextrose 5% with 20mmol K+ (over 10 hours) + 1L dextrose 5% with 20mmol K+(over 8 hours)
  • 1L Hartmann’s solution (over 10 hours) + 1L 5% dextrose with 40mmol K(over 8 hours) + 500ml 5% dextrose with 20mmol K+ (over 6 hours)

Other points:

  •  and adjust the regimen as necessary for any electrolyte abnormalities

Replacement of fluid losses

Two components of this need to be considered:

  1. Pre-existing fluid deficit (replaced using STAT boluses)
  2. Ongoing losses (prescribe fluids to replace future losses as they are likely to occur)

Fluid losses should be replaced with fluids which have a similar electrolyte content to the fluid that has been lost. The main types of fluid loss and what they should be replaced with are:

  • Extracellular fluid/volume depletion, e.g. due to diarrhoea and vomiting, NG aspirates, stomas, burns, pancreatitis, sepsis: this should be replaced with a fluid similar to extracellular fluid, which is similar to plasma (e.g. Hartmann’s solution or 0.9% saline). 
  • NB: if a patient needs a lot of sodium-rich fluid resuscitation, Hartmann’s solution is preferred to 0.9% saline because it contains less chloride (too much chloride causes a hyperchloraemic acidosis).
  • Dehydration/total water loss, e.g. due to poor intake: should be replaced by normal maintenance-type fluids (e.g. dextrose-saline). However, if these patients are hypotensive and need a fluid bolus, use Hartmann’s solution or 0.9% saline, because a larger volume will stay in the intravascular space.
  • Blood loss: should be replaced with blood. If the patient continues to bleed, they may also need other products, e.g. FFP/platelets to stop the bleeding rather than just replace the lost red cells.

WARNINGS: DO NOT use maintenance regimens to correct plasma or blood loss because this can cause a dangerous hyponatraemia. DO NOT give potassium at a rate greater than 10mmol/hour.

Pre-existing fluid deficit

The quantity of fluid replacement depends on your estimate of the fluid deficit. Determine the approximate deficit and the cause by:

  • The history
  • Observations, fluid balance chart and hydration status examination
  • U&Es: but be aware this is a measurement of plasma levels and may not represent total body stores (because homeostasis mechanisms keep plasma levels within a certain range)

Classes of shock:

Shock classFluid lostSigns
10.75L (15%)Minimal, mild tachycardia
20.75-1.5L (15-30%)Moderate tachycardia, prolonged capillary refill
31.5-2L (30-40%)Severe tachycardia and hypotension, confusion
4>2L (>40%)Critical tachycardia and hypotension

Fluid resuscitation to replace pre-existing deficits is delivered in STAT boluses. 500ml 0.9% saline/Hartmann’s solution is a good choice. You must reassess the patient’s fluid status (including blood pressure and urine output) after each bolus to guide further fluid resuscitation. If they require large fluid volumes, also regularly assess for signs of fluid overload (e.g. raised JVP, increasing oxygen requirements, peripheral/pulmonary oedema).

For acutely hypotensive patients when you are unsure of the exact cause or quantity of fluid loss, unless you suspect heart failure, give a fluid challenge and then assess the response: 

  • ↘respond fully: just prescribe fluids for future losses/maintenance 
  • ↘respond and become hypotensive again: give more resuscitation fluids (amount depends on patient but usually around     
  •    20ml/kg quickly)
  • ↘no response: patient may be very depleted (give lots of fluids), or in heart failure (don’t give any more fluids) – assess clinically and look for signs of fluid overload such as raised JVP and pulmonary/peripheral oedema

WARNING: be cautious if the patient has a history of heart failure history and use only 250ml fluid challenges. Bear in mind heart failure patients may normally run hypotensive. If there are signs of heart failure, DO NOT give fluids – ask for senior advice because diuretics or inotropes may be required.

Ongoing losses

  • You must estimate these and aim to prescribe a regimen to replace them as they occur with a type of fluid similar in electrolyte content to what is being lost.

Special situations


  • K+ stores are mostly intracellular and serum levels can increase due to cell lysis during surgery. Hence, if K+ is over 4.5mmol/L post-operatively, omit it from the fluid prescription for 24 hours.
  • If K+ is normal/low, you can give some, e.g. 40mmol in 24 hours. 0.9% saline is generally avoided where possible post-operatively because surgery and trauma trigger the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (which causes sodium and fluid retention and reduced urine output), and because sodium-containing substances are often given in theatre (e.g. colloids, Hartmann’s solution and IV antibiotics).
  • Too much sodium chloride can result in oedema, hyperchloraemic acidosis, increased kidney load, increased post-operative complications, and GI problems. Dextrose-saline contains less sodium chloride and so is preferred for maintenance fluid instead.


  • Sepsis causes intravascular depletion due to plasma loss through leaky capillaries and vasodilation. Replace fluid with Hartmann’s solution or 0.9% saline, but avoid too much chloride (i.e. 0.9% saline) if large quantities of fluid are required (risk of hyperchloraemic acidosis). Monitor response carefully – remember patients may need vasopressors to maintain blood pressure and reduce peripheral fluid losses.

Heart failure

  • Heart failure patients are prone to fluid overload and pulmonary oedema. Be attentive to their fluid balance and remember they may normally run hypotensive. If overload develops, start fluid restriction, furosemide, a low sodium diet, and record daily weights. There is no logic in giving furosemide together with fluids.
  • If a patient is at risk of LVF and has low SBP and urine output, you must examine the patient because there are two opposite explanations for this clinical picture:
    • Dehydration: they may simply be fluid deplete (treatment = fluids)
    • Worsening fluid overload: they may be fluid overloaded, which causes a low SBP, cardiorenal failure, and a low urine output (treatment = diuresis, which will reduce high venous pressure and improve LVF, increase SBP, and improve renal function and urine output)

Severe aortic stenosis

  • Patients with severe AS need adequate circulating volume to maintain preload, but be cautious because too much fluid too fast can cause flash pulmonary oedema (their high left ventricular end-diastolic pressure may be unable to accommodate extra fluid).

Liver disease

  • Excess Na+ may worsen ascites. Crystalloid use is fine acutely/for resuscitation, but try to avoid too much. Human albumin solution is a good alternative volume expander (e.g. 100ml 20% HAS).
  • Too much dextrose can also be problematic as it can worsen hyponatraemia (common in cirrhosis).

Acute kidney injury

  • Be cautious with potassium because they are at risk of hyperkalaemia.

Severe chronic kidney disease

  • Avoid excess fluid, sodium and potassium as the kidneys may not be able to excrete them

Alcoholic / risk of refeeding syndrome

  • Avoid dextrose where possible because it can precipitate re-feeding syndrome
  • If you need to give dextrose, give Pabrinex first because dextrose can precipitate Korsakoff syndrome

Brain haemorrhage/stroke

  • Avoid dextrose as this can cause osmotic haematoma swelling
  • Dextrose Destroys the brain if there’s a bleed!
  • Saline is best

Acute bleeding/trauma

  • In actively bleeding patients, fluid and blood product resuscitation is important; however, replacing fluid too aggressively may increase bleeding
  • For this reason, a less than normal blood pressure is often accepted – ‘permissive hypotension’

Electrolyte abnormalities