How to Identify Hypertonic, Hypotonic, & Isotonic Solutions

SimpleNursing Editorial Team Jan 8, 2018
nurse holding IV bag with hypertonic, hypotonic, or isotonic solution

Intravenous (IV) solutions are burdensome and sometimes confusing to remember. And it gets even more complicated if IV solutions (hypertonic, hypotonic, & isotonic) show up on your exams. 

How do you differentiate one fluid from another? If you’re not familiar with the concepts of IV solutions, chances are you’ll stumble over IV-related test questions.

Sometimes remembering all these solutions and fluids can be quite overwhelming, but memorization tricks can help.

How to Remember Hypertonic, Hypotonic, and Isotonic Solutions

When memorizing something that can be a bit confounding, it would be much easier to connect the complicated physiology to closely related images.

Here’s how to easily identify your intravenous solutions – by remembering the following:

  1. Hypertonic fluids are for skinny cells because the fluid goes out of the cell, making it skinny. So when people are hyper, they become skinny.
  2. Hypotonic fluids can be considered hippotonic cells because all the fluid goes into the cell causing it to swell.
  3. Isotonic fluids can be considered isoperfect cells, like “I’m so perfect.” This means that no osmosis or shifting is happening with the cell.

But let’s break down IV solution memorization even more.

Skinny is for Hypertonic Fluids

On the other hand, hypertonic solutions are used when solutes are increased extracellularly. Osmosis causes water to run from the inside out. If this happens, the cell will shrink.

With hypertonic solutions, the first thing you have to think of is what would happen to someone who is hyper? They have a lot of energy that makes them do activities like running around, keeping them fit and skinny. 

On the other hand, hypertonic solutions cause the cell to become skinny because of the fluid that escapes from it.  Hypertonic is to running, and running is too skinny.

Uses: Most likely given to counter the effects of fluid overload or pulmonary edema.

Hippo is for Hypotonic Fluids

In cases of dehydration or medication treatments, the hypotonic solution is the IV solution of choice. This is because hypotonic solutions contain fewer electrolytes and sodium. 

Frequently used if there is decreased solute level outside the cell, and the goal is to shift that back inside through osmosis to put everything back to normal.

Now, to remember that, think of hypotonic fluids as a hippo. Got it? Hypo to hippo. Why? As previously mentioned, when fluid goes into your cell, it causes the cell to become full and swollen.

Uses: Hyperosmolar hyperglycemia, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)

I-so-perfect is for Isotonic Fluids

Intravascularly, isotonic solutions don’t cause osmotic shifting from the cell to the vascular spaces. There is an equal concentration of cellular conditions.

This can be remembered by simply saying that isotonic is Isoperfect. And being perfect means you don’t have to change anything, you are not required to gain or lose, and everything is perfect – Isoperfect.

Uses: Dehydration, surgery

The next thing that you have to keep in mind is how to pinpoint an IV solution once you have spotted one.

Hypertonic vs Hypotonic vs Isotonic Solutions

Mind you, IV solutions will appear on your tests (clinicals, too). And when they do, scoring or performing well will be very difficult if you don’t know how to find your way around differentiating fluids.

Hypertonic Solutions

Hypertonic solutions can make it easier for the kidneys to remove excess water from your patient’s body. They also decrease blood pressure by reducing the amount of fluid in blood vessels and capillaries – and as a result, decreases how much pressure is exerted against them.

What do hypertonic solutions consist of?

  1. 3% NaCl (normal saline/sodium chloride)
  2. 5% NaCl – normal saline/sodium chloride
  3. D10W – Dextrose 10% in Water
  4. D20W – Dextrose 20% in Water
  5. D50W – Dextrose 50% in Water

Remember: Numbers that don’t exceed 30% are considered hypertonic solutions. People who are hyper are skinny, therefore, their numbers are limited to a single digit and can go as far as double digits but not over 30%. 

Those solutions that have Ws labeled on them is a hypertonic solution.

When Do You Give Hypertonic Solutions?

As a nurse, you’ll need to give hypertonic fluids to patients who experience:

  • Low blood pressure.
  • Heavy fluid loss.
  • Too much potassium (needing sodium).
  • Frequent vomiting or diarrhea.
  • A hyperosmolar nonketotic hyperglycemic state (HONKH).
  • Diabetes, kidney disease, or liver cirrhosis.
  • Burns or wounds (that need to be packed).

Read how to start an IV line here. 

Hypotonic Solutions

What makes these solutions hypotonic is their lower density than that of plasma or other fluids inside our bodies. 

This is so they don’t exert as much pressure against membranes or capillaries as hypertonic solutions do (and they don’t cause as much fluid loss through urine production either). 

What do hypotonic solutions consist of?

  1. 0.45% NaCl – ​​0.45% Sodium Chloride
  2. 0.33% NaCl – 0.33% Sodium Chloride
  3. 0.225% NaCl – 0.225% Sodium Chloride
  4. D2.5W – 2.5% Dextrose in Water

Remember: Anything above 0.30% Normal Saline is considered a hypotonic solution.

When Do You Give Hypotonic Solutions?

You’ll need to give hypotonic fluids to patients who experience:

  • An osmolality of less than 200 mOsm/L and less than 300 mOsm/L.
  • Hyponatremia, or low sodium levels in their bloodstream.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting. 
  • Heart failure 

Isotonic Solutions

Isotonic solutions have the same density as body fluids, and can be used for infusion into a patient’s bloodstream without altering their blood volume or pressure. This means that isotonic solutions don’t dehydrate you as quickly as hypotonic or hypertonic solutions.

Isoperfect – nothing is happening inside and outside the cell, and Osmosis is not present. What do isotonic solutions consist of?

  1. 0.9% NaCl – Normal saline solution (NSS)
  2. D5W – Dextrose 5% in water
  3. D5LRS – Lactated Ringer’s 5% Dextrose in Water (also known as Lactated Ringer’s Solution, Ringer’s Lactate, and Hartmann solution)

Remember: Blood has the same consistency as isotonic solutions. Therefore, during post-op surgeries, Lactated Ringer’s solution is given.

When Do You Give Isotonic Solutions?

Patients who experience the following need isotonic solutions:

  • Heart failure (and have been hospitalized for more than two days).
  • Low blood pressure or low sodium
  • Medications that lower the tonicity of the body.

IV Solution Example Question

Nursing tests love inserting questions about isotonic solutions primarily because it is one of the most commonly used solutions in a hospital setting. They will keep adding those questions to your exams until you get it right because isotonic solutions are integral in healthcare.

A scenario that usually gets placed in exams is where a client is hypovolemic, with low blood volume inside the body. What solution should you use? 

First, you need to consider these:

  1. Hypovolemic clients require fluid within the intravascular space.
  2. Hypovolemic clients require fluid to fill their veins.
  3. Fluid is not necessary inside the cells.
  4. Fluids do not come out from the cells.
  5. You need something just right.

Answer: Isotonic. Because you just want things to be perfect (isoperfect).

Take Your Learning Beyond the Classroom

Memorize these solutions and how they function by heart. And hopefully, when you encounter IV solution questions in your exams, you can efficiently identify what specific solution to use.

But to help you with non-IV-related questions as well, you also need the right digital resource. SimpleNursing has question banks, custom quiz builders, and videos with rationales that cover everything you need to pass your exams.

Invest in the right tool for you that supplements your nursing learning – and beyond.

Start with a free trial today.

Want to ace Nursing School Exams & the NCLEX?

Make topics click with easy-to-understand videos & more. We've helped over 1,000,000 students & we can help you too.


Nursing students trust SimpleNursing

Simplenursing student
I cannot express enough gratitude for Nurse Mike and this wonderful platform he has created. I had a subscription to SimpleNursing the entire 2 years of my nursing school career and it was the best resource I had available to me. The visuals, the explanations, the memory tricks, the songs, the study guides, and the test questions are brilliant.
read more
Simplenursing student
Before starting nursing school, I was a C-average student. I didn't think I'd be competent enough and make it through my second semester. I was told about SimpleNursing and purchased it immediately. Long story short, I graduated nursing school with honors and passed all of my classes with As and Bs only. I would have never been able to do that without the help of SimpleNursing. Nurse Mike teaches in the only way that I am able to learn and I cannot thank him enough.
read more