Dehydration: What It Is, How to Recognize and Treat It

Dehydration causes and Implications
A glass of water macro shot

With the heat and humidity of summer comes the increased risk of dehydration, which can be a serious concern on its own and is one of the precursors to some heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Health Implications of Dehydration

If dehydration is not treated when it is mild to moderate in nature, or if it is an ongoing health issue, it can result in a number of serious consequences, including death:

  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Constipation
  • Muscle damage
  • Kidney damage, kidney stones and kidney failure
  • Muscle cramps
  • Seizures
  • Swelling of the brain
  • Heat-related illnesses of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which can be fatal
  • Low blood volume shock, which can be fatal
  • Coma
  • Death

Good Hydration Is Essential to Preventing Dehydration and Heat-Related Illnesses

Dehydration, or the lack of adequate fluids to allow your body to function properly, can happen at any time. It occurs more often in the summer months due to the more rapid loss of body fluids through perspiration than in other seasons. Staying adequately hydrated can help to stave off some of the heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke along with other preventive measures.

These tips should help you to prevent dehydration even in the sweltering days of summer:

  • Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink fluids. Thirst is the first symptom of dehydration.
  • The color of your urine is also a quick indicator of your level of hydration: clear or straw-colored urine is desirable; dark yellow or amber-colored urine are indicators of dehydration.
  • Choose beverages wisely – not all beverages aid in hydration, and some, in fact, rob your body of fluid: Alcoholic beverages, sugary beverages and those with caffeine should be taken in moderation or avoided altogether.
  • If you’re going to be outdoors and active, drink 16 to 20 ounces of fluid one to two hours before going outdoors. Once outdoors, drink six to 12 ounces of fluid for every 15 to 20 minutes that you are active. When your activity is completed, drink another 16 to 24 ounces of fluid.Water is the preferred fluid for hydration, unless you are very active when outdoors, working outdoors, or going to be in the sun for more than a few hours. In those situations, drinking sports drinks will help to replace not only lost fluids, but electrolytes such as potassium and sodium.

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration:

Mild to moderate dehydration may be treated at home in an otherwise healthy person. If there is no improvement in symptoms within 10 to 15 minutes, seek immediate medical attention:

  • Thirst
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased urine output, dark-colored urine
  • Tiredness or sleepiness
  • Flushed skin

Severe dehydration symptoms require immediate medical attention:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes
  • Fever
  • Rapid or weak heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Skin becomes dry; when pinched between fingers, the skin does not immediately return to its previous state.
  • In extreme cases, delirium or lose of consciousness

Infants Can Be More Prone to Dehydration than Other Age Groups

Infants can be more prone to experience dehydration than other age group because they are not able to verbalize when they are thirsty or experiencing the subjective symptoms of mild dehydration. The internal body heat regulation system in infants is not fully developed, making them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than children or adults.

Symptoms of Dehydration in Infants Includes General Symptoms and these Symptoms Specific to Infants:

  • In mild to moderate dehydration, infants may be more tired than usual, will have few or no tears when crying, and decreased number of wet diapers.
  • In severe dehydration, the fontanels on an infant (the soft spots on top of the infant’s head) may appear shrunken, infant may be very fussy or unusually sleepy and have no tears when crying, eyes may appear shrunken.

If the infant is awake and alert, offer small amounts of fluid. Contact your health care provider to learn what other steps you should take, from offering oral rehydration solutions to seeking emergency medical care.

Older Adults and Those With Chronic Illness Pose Special Issues for Dehydration and Heat-Related Illnesses

Adults age 60 and over have a smaller total bodily water mass than younger adults, meaning that it takes less to cause dehydration in that age group than in their younger counterparts.

The risk for the development of dehydration increases depending on the number of these risk factors present:

  • Being over age 85 years-of-age
  • Taking five or more prescription medications
  • Having five or more chronic health conditions
  • Swallowing problems such as from a stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s disease or other conditions
  • Fear of being incontinent that results in the individual self-limiting fluid intake
  • Obesity
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating

It can be a difficult balancing act to get fluid intake and electrolyte levels to be optimal for those who are taking heart medications, diuretics and other prescription medications or have conditions in which fluid retention could cause a health problem. If you’re an adult over 60 or younger and chronically ill, consult with your health care practitioner to learn the fluid intake recommendations for your unique situation.

As an older adult, you can’t rely on the symptom of thirst as an early warning sign of dehydration because for some older people, the sense of thirst diminishes with age.

As an older adult or someone chronically ill, you should be alert for the general signs and symptoms of dehydration and consider that the following conditions have been associated with dehydration in older adults:

  • Urinary tract infection
  • Confusion
  • Increased falls
  • Respiratory tract infection
  • Constipation
  • Kidney stones
  • Heart palpitations
  • Toxic blood levels of medication

Discuss your concerns with your health care practitioner if you experience any of these issues, so that s/he will consider dehydration as an underlying factor.