Dehydration - Causes

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What causes dehydration?

Dehydration occurs because there is too much water lost, not enough water taken in, or most commonly, a combination of the two.

  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea is the most common reason for a person to lose excess amounts of water. A significant amount of water can be lost with each bowel movement. Worldwide, more than four million children die each year because of dehydration from diarrhea.
  • Vomiting: Vomiting can also be a cause of fluid loss. Not only can an individual lose fluid in the vomitus, but it may be difficult to replace water by drinking because of that same nausea and vomiting.
  • Sweat: The body can lose significant amounts of water in the form of sweat when it tries to cool itself. Whether the body temperature is increased because of working or exercising in a hot environment or because a fever is present due to an infection; the body uses water in the form of sweat to cool itself. Depending upon weather conditions, a brisk walk may generate up to 16 ounces of sweat (a pound of water) an hour to allow body cooling, and that water needs to be replaced by the thirst mechanism signaling the person to drink fluids.
  • Diabetes: In people with diabetes, elevated blood sugar levels cause sugar to spill into the urine and water then follows, which may cause significant dehydration. For this reason, frequent urination and excessive thirst are among the early symptoms of diabetes.
  • Burns: The skin acts as a protective barrier for the body and is also responsible for regulating fluid loss. Burn victims become dehydrated because the damaged skin cannot prevent fluid from seeping out of the body. Other inflammatory diseases of the skin such as toxic epidermal necrolysis, also may be associated with significant fluid loss.
  • Inability to drink fluids: The inability to drink adequately is the other potential cause of dehydration. Whether it is the lack of availability of water, intense nausea with or without vomiting, or the lack of strength to drink. This coupled with routine or extraordinary water losses can compound the degree of dehydration.
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See what others are saying

Comment from: Bailey, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: April 11

I woke up one morning after a long car trip which started at 7:00 am and ended at 9:00 am. I felt very swollen, and had a hard time urinating. I was also very constipated. The following morning, I fell in the bathtub as I could not stay on my feet, and my extremities started jerking. I was talking out of my head and not making any sense. I was on several medications at the time, including hydrochlorothiazide (diuretic) at the prescription of a specialist I saw for recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs). I was rushed to the emergency room. The exam showed I had shallow respiration with low oxygenation levels, my blood pressure was dangerously low, and my pulse low as well. They began to run tests feverishly. It took forever. They thought I had an infection, or some brain swelling after a CAT scan of the brain. They could not do the spinal tap because of my jerky movements. They gave me a cocktail of several antibiotics. They kept hydrating me until I was able to urinate. I was able to go home at 8:00 am the next morning. I had a difficult time remembering the details or providing any historical information. My husband directed the attending physician to my doctors and the pharmacy. Finally during the night, all my vital signs were normal. Since then, I do not take any diuretics. I am thirsty a lot and drink water throughout the day. I have not had this problem again since that day. I had not experienced it before. But, I had been recently given additional medications which were just too overwhelming for my body. I never want to go through that again.

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Comment from: gradgirl, 25-34 Female (Patient) Published: October 18

As a graduate student with a very busy schedule, I realized after the fact that I barely drank any water for 2 days in a row. All I had was coffee and one diet coke during those days, and a glass of water at dinner each night. This morning I woke up with a horrible, horrible headache (no medication helped) and became very lethargic. I basically slept from 1:30-5PM. I've been slowly drinking water all night and am starting to feel better.

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