Dehydration is a serious medical condition that requires immediate attention. It can affect individuals of any age, including small children and the elderly. There are a variety of factors that can contribute to dehydration. Regardless of the initial cause, prompt treatment is necessary to alleviate symptoms, rehydrate the body and prevent additional complications.
Dehydration is the term used to describe the condition that occurs when an individual experiences fluid loss that is in excess of the amount of fluid that is ingested. When the body does not have a proper fluid balance, it is unable to perform normal functions. If fluids are not replenished soon after they are lost, dehydration can occur.
Dehydration symptoms depend largely on the severity of the fluid loss. Symptoms increase and worsen as mild to moderate dehydration progresses to severe dehydration, which is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include:
- Dry mouth
- Sticky mouth or lip
- Inactivity in children
- Decreased urination
- Lack of wet diapers for three hours in infants and small children
- Crying without tears
- Dry skin
If left untreated, mild to moderate dehydration can quickly progress to severe dehydration. This results in additional symptoms and is a medical emergency. Symptoms of severe dehydration include:
- Dry mouth
- Cracked lips
- Intense thirst
- Lack of sweating
- Lack of urination
- Extremely dark urine
- Eyes sunken in
- Extremely fussy infant
- Dry skin that has no elasticity
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Low blood pressure
Although thirst is one of the symptoms of dehydration, it is not a reliable indicator of dehydration. Many individuals, especially children and the elderly, will not experience extreme thirst even during moderate cases of dehydration.
Dehydration occurs when there is not enough fluid in the body to sustain normal bodily functions. Fluids can be depleted for a number of reasons, ranging from a simple lack of liquid intake to illness. Common causes for dehydration include:
- Not drinking enough water
- Severe diarrhea
- High fever
- Excessive sweating
- Increased urination
When diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting, a significant amount of fluids are expelled from the body in a short period of time. Along with the water that is lost, electrolytes and important minerals are also lost, speeding up the dehydration process.
When a fever is present during illness, it causes fluid loss to occur at an even faster pace. Generally, dehydration becomes more severe the higher the fever gets. Dehydration from illness can occur in all age groups, however, children and infants are at an increased risk.
Excessive sweating can occur as a result of engaging vigorous exercise, participating in extreme sports or being exposed to extremely hot or humid temperatures. During any of these conditions, fluid loss is excessive. If the fluid is not replaced as it is expelled from the body, dehydration can occur. Teenagers are more susceptible to dehydration during extreme physical fitness because they generally have a lower body weight than adults and therefore lose a higher portion of their bodily fluid in a short period of time.
When dehydration occurs as a result of excessive urination, an underlying medical condition such as diabetes is generally the cause. Individuals with diabetes often experience increased thirst and frequent urination. Many individuals with these symptoms are unaware that they have the condition. Other causes for excessive urination include:
- Hormonal disorders
- Blood pressure medications
- Alcohol use
Dehydration can occur in people of all ages when fluid loss occurs. Some individuals are at a greater risk of experiencing dehydration, including:
- Children and infants
- The elderly
- Individuals with chronic medical conditions
- Individuals living at high altitudes
- Individuals who exercise outdoors during hot or humid weather
Children and infants use up their water and electrolyte stores much faster than adults. This factor, together with their low body weight, makes them much more susceptible to dehydration. Additionally, children and infants are more likely to experience severe diarrhea during intestinal or other illnesses.
The elderly are equally susceptible to dehydration. This is because as people age, they significantly reduce much of their ability to conserve water within the body. Their sense of thirst becomes less sensitive, making them less likely to stay hydrated. Elderly individuals living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, or those who live alone, may forget to drink anything for an entire day. Additionally, their bodies are less likely to respond to temperature changes appropriately. When an elderly individuals also experiences a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or a hormonal imbalance, the risk of becoming dehydrated increases significantly.
Although any type of exercise or physical activity can lead to dehydration, especially during hot or humid weather conditions, endurance athletes are even more susceptible. Individuals who participate in extreme sporting events such as triathlons, cycling tournaments and mountain climbing expeditions are at an exceptionally high risk of becoming dehydrated wither during training or during the event itself. During endurance sports, the body is exposed to excessive physical activity for prolonged periods of time. The more hours spent exercising, the more fluid that is lost and the greater the risk of dehydration.
When people exercise or participate in sports during hot or humid weather, they are more likely to experience dehydration. This is because sweat does not evaporate and cool the body down when air is humid. This can cause the body temperature to rise, which results in the need for additional fluid intake. If fluids are not replenished rather quickly, dehydration can occur.
It is much easier to prevent dehydration than it is to treat it once it occurs. The best way to prevent dehydration is to make sure you drink plenty of fluids and eat foods that have a high water composition, such as fruits and vegetables. Pay attention to your body and learn to recognize immediate signs of thirst. When exercising or participating in sports, be sure to drink plenty of water even if thirst is not present. Individuals who are experiencing an acute illness such as an intestinal virus should be sure to rehydrate the body often. This is especially important if diarrhea, vomiting or fever are present.
Dehydration, if left untreated, can lead to complication such as:
- Heat exhaustion
- Heat stroke
- Cerebral edema (swelling of the brain)
- Hypovolemic shock (low blood volume shock)
- Kidney failure
When To See Your Doctor
Mild to moderate dehydration in healthy individuals can usually be treated at home by drinking more fluids. Those with underlying medical conditions as well as children, infants and the elderly may need medical attention. These individuals, as well as individuals suffering from symptoms of severe dehydration should contact their doctor immediately if they show signs of:
- Extreme thirst
- Lack of urination
- Dry skin that is sallow
- Severe diarrhea
- Severe vomiting
- Bloody stool
- Moderate diarrhea for more than 2 days
- Can’t keep down any fluids
Doctors can generally diagnose dehydration by performing a physical exam. Tests to confirm dehydration may be ordered, such as a blood test and a urinalysis.
Dehydration requires treatment to replace lost fluids. Depending on the severity of the dehydration, the age of the individual and any risk factors present, treatment may include oral rehydration or intravenous fluids.
Students who play sports are at a high risk of developing dehydration. Parents should take steps to reduce the risk of dehydration in teens by ensuring they wear loose-fitting clothing that allows heat to escape and stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after activity.