What is dehydration?
Drinking plenty of water every day is important for many reasons. Water helps you maintain a stable temperature, keeps your joints lubricated, and helps your body get rid of waste properly. Throughout the day, your body uses and gets rid of water, so you need to replace it. If you lose more than you take in, you become dehydrated.
Dehydration is a common problem. While many people think they’re drinking enough, approximately 75% of Americans aren’t. Anyone can become dehydrated, but some people are more at risk than others, including:
- Children and infants
- Older adults
- People who live in warmer areas
- People who live at higher altitudes, such as the mountains
If you become too dehydrated, your risk of serious health issues increases. It can lead to:
- Organ damage
- Organ failure
- Brain damage
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of dehydration is important for reversing it and ensuring your body gets the water it needs.
Signs and symptoms of dehydration
Feeling thirsty is often considered to be an early warning sign that you’re becoming dehydrated. When you feel thirst, however, it’s a sign that dehydration has already started.
Other warning signs of dehydration include:
When your body doesn’t have enough water, your salivary glands can’t produce saliva. Your mouth might feel dry or sticky. You may notice that you have trouble talking or swallowing, your throat is sore, or your sense of taste has changed. Dry mouth can also lead to bad breath, because you don’t have enough saliva to wash away bacteria.
Your body loses water when you urinate. If you don’t have enough water in your system, you’ll urinate less. Your urine will also be darker. The color can provide clues as to your hydration status. A pale, straw-yellow color shows you that you’re drinking enough. Darker yellow shades, however, let you know you’re dehydrated. If you’re not urinating at all, you should seek medical care right away.
Dehydration can affect your skin. If it doesn’t bounce back quickly when you pinch it, that could be a sign that you need to drink more fluids.
Water carries important nutrients throughout your body and delivers them to where they need to be. When you’re dehydrated, your body has to work harder, which can leave you feeling tired and sluggish.
Not drinking enough water can lead to severe headaches. If your head hurts, it could mean you’re dehydrated.
In cases of severe dehydration, symptoms might include:
- Rapid heartbeat/breathing
- Very dark urine
- Skin that doesn't bounce back after it is pinched
If you notice any of these signs, you should seek medical care right away.
Causes of dehydration
There are several causes of dehydration. Some people just don’t drink enough water throughout the day. For others, there are underlying issues, such as:
If you have an illness that causes vomiting or diarrhea, you are more likely to become dehydrated. These side effects, especially when serious, lead to the loss of a lot of water and electrolytes in a short time.
When you urinate, you lose water. If you’re urinating a lot, you’re losing even more. Not only can an increase in urination point toward dehydration, but it may also be a sign of diabetes.
You lose water and salts when you sweat. If you’re outside in hot weather, playing sports, working out, or have a fever, you’re likely to sweat more, increasing your risk of dehydration.
Certain types of medications can lead to dehydration. These medications include:
- Blood pressure medications
Your doctor may be able to diagnose dehydration with a physical exam. They’ll check your blood pressure and heart rate. You may also need blood tests or a urine test. Blood tests can check your electrolyte levels and kidney function. Urinalysis can let your doctor know how dehydrated you are and allow them to check for infections. If your doctor suspects an underlying condition, they may order additional tests.
Treatments for dehydration
You can generally treat mild to moderate dehydration at home by increasing your water intake. Electrolyte drinks can help to restore lost electrolytes as well. For children with dehydration, a pediatrician may recommend an over-the-counter rehydration solution.
In more severe cases of dehydration, your doctor may recommend IV rehydration. The treatment involves inserting a small IV into your vein to provide a mixture of water and electrolytes. Individuals who can’t keep fluids down may also need IV rehydration.
If your doctor finds your dehydration to be the result of another condition, they will recommend treatments to help.
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