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Dehydration: When to Know Enough is Enough

Did you know? Many of us have probably been dehydrated at some time in our life, and may not have even known it. Anyone may become dehydrated, but the condition is especially dangerous for young children and older adults. The most common cause of dehydration in young children is severe diarrhea and vomiting. Older adults naturally have a lower volume of water in their bodies and may have conditions or take medications that increase the risk of dehydration.

Dehydration can occur in any age group if you don't drink enough water during hot weather — especially if you are exercising vigorously whether it be for work or play. So, when do we know when “enough is enough?”

Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluid than it takes in and doesn’t have enough fluids to carry out its normal functions. Our bodies are 55% water and when we are out in the sun and heat we lose water by sweating (which is another way to cool our bodies off) and through evaporation. If we lose more than 1.5% of our body weight in one day then we are at risk of dehydration which if untreated could lead to a heat stroke, brain swelling, seizures, low blood volume shock, kidney failure, coma, and even death.

How to Prevent Dehydration

Dehydration could be very dangerous for anyone, but particularly so for those who have health conditions, young children, and the elderly. As temperatures rise, the potential for dehydration increases, but we can work to prevent it by following some simple guidelines:

  • Drink lots of water in small amounts frequently while in the heat. Store water in a cooler or cool place (ideally 50° to 60°).
  • Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Try to drink a liter (32 ounces) every two hours. Depending on the temperatures, you may need more. Space out drinks every 15-20 minutes.

Avoid drinking alcohol, soda, and other beverages containing caffeine and sugar, as they can lead to dehydration. Try flavored water instead. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps. Other tips...

  • Whether you’re working or playing, plan out rest schedules throughout your day.
  • Reduce heavy workloads during peak heat time (typically 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm).

Symptoms of Dehydration in Adults

Adults of any age may experience some of these symptoms if dehydrated.

  • Extreme thirst
  • Less frequent urination
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating

Note that elderly adults need more water than the average person. As we age our body retains less water and it may be more difficult to determine whether or not we are thirsty until we are already dehydrated. Older adults may also have medical and mobility conditions that could prevent them from detecting the symptoms of dehydration.

Symptoms of Dehydration in Children

When children are active outdoors, pay attention, especially, when the temperatures are climbing to catch the signs of dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration in children may include:

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • No tears when crying
  • No wet diapers for three hours
  • Sunken eyes, cheeks
  • Sunken soft spot on top of skull
  • Listlessness or irritability

How to Treat Dehydration

The only effective treatment for dehydration is to replace lost fluids and lost electrolytes. The best approach to dehydration treatment depends on age, the severity of dehydration and its cause.

Most adults with mild to moderate dehydration can improve their condition by drinking more water or other liquids like sports drinks. Drinks containing electrolytes work best for rehydrating but water will work, too. Diarrhea may be worsened by full-strength fruit juice and soft drinks.

For infants and children who have become dehydrated use an over-the-counter oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte and also administer water. Start with about a teaspoon (5 milliliters) every one to five minutes and increase as tolerated. It may be easier to use a syringe for very young children. Older children can be given diluted sports drinks. Use 1 part sports drink to 1 part water.

If you work or exercise outdoors during hot or humid weather, cool water often is your best bet.

When to go to the Emergency Room (ER)

Children and adults who are severely dehydrated should be treated medically. If you have any of the following symptoms seek medical attention at your nearest emergency room.

  • Dizziness, weakness, confusion, fainting (adults)
  • Very dark urine and little urine output (children & adults)
  • Skin that doesn't bounce back quickly when pinched, crying without tears, lethargy, decreased activity, or increased sleepiness. (children)