What is dehydration?
Drinking enough water is important for a wide variety of reasons. Being well-hydrated helps you regulate your body temperature, keeps your joints lubricated, prevents infections, gets nutrients to your cells, and keeps your organs functioning smoothly. Good hydration also improves the quality of your sleep, your cognition, and even your mood.
Your body is approximately 50% to 75% water, most of which is found inside your cells. A newborn’s body mass is closer to 75% water, while adults can be up to 60%. You are constantly losing water through a variety of ways. You replenish it through the water you drink and some foods that you eat.
Dehydration is when more water leaves your body than enters it. When your body does not have enough water, it does not function as well. Dehydration can range from mild to severe.
Symptoms of dehydration
Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include:
Symptoms of severe dehydration include:
- Excessive thirst
- Lack of sweat production
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Sunken eyes
- Shriveled skin
- Dark urine
Infants and young children may have additional symptoms including
- No tears when crying
- No wet diapers for 3 hours or more
- Sunken soft spot on top of the head
- Listlessness or irritability
Severe dehydration at any age is a serious medical emergency and can be fatal. Contact your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.
Causes of dehydration
Your body can lose water in a variety of ways. If the water is not replaced, you will become dehydrated. Some of the most common causes of dehydration are:
- Exercise and sweating
- Urinating too much (caused by medication, alcohol, or metabolic disorder)
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Severe burns
Other factors that can make you more susceptible to dehydration include warm weather and high altitude.
Who can get dehydrated?
Anyone is vulnerable to dehydration. However, there are certain groups of people that are more likely to experience the condition including:
- People working outdoors, especially in the sun or heat
- Older adults
- Infants and young children
- People living at higher altitudes
People with some chronic conditions (including kidney disease, alcoholism, diabetes, or adrenal gland disorders).
Diagnosis for dehydration
There is no single test to diagnose dehydration, and you won’t always need to see a doctor. If you do go see a doctor, your doctor will use both a physical and mental exam to determine if you are dehydrated.
Physical symptoms that your doctor might check for include low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, and high body temperature. If you’re worried about why you became dehydrated, you can ask your doctor about possible underlying conditions, and your doctor may want to run a few more tests if they agree there’s reason for concern.
It’s also likely that your doctor will ask about your activity and history, including what led to your dehydration and when you last drank water.
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Treatments for dehydration
Experts recommend that men drink around 125 ounces (just over 15 cups) of fluid each day and that women drink around 90 ounces (over 11 cups). This includes both fluids — like water — that you drink, as well as water-rich foods like fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you are engaging in vigorous exercise, in a hot environment, or at a high altitude, you may need more than this to stay fully hydrated. Other tips to avoid dehydration include taking breaks in a cool, shady place and limiting your intake of alcohol, sugar, and caffeine.
Rehydrating after dehydration
The severity of your dehydration will influence how long it takes to return to a well-hydrated state. If your dehydration is mild to moderate, it is possible to rehydrate with home care within a few hours. Many mild cases of dehydration can be resolved by drinking a generous amount of water. If you need to replace electrolytes as well — after intense exercise, diarrhea, or vomiting — you can drink a sports drink or electrolyte solution to speed up the process.
Young children who are dehydrated can also replenish electrolytes and fluid with an oral rehydration solution (like Pedialyte).
If your dehydration is severe, seek medical care. Your doctor may administer fluid intravenously (IV) to rehydrate your body quickly.
Possible complications and side effects
If dehydration is not treated, it can lead to very serious complications or even death. Complications can include:
- Low blood volume (hypovolemic shock)
- Low blood pressure
- Seizures due to electrolyte imbalance
- Kidney problems or failure
- Heat injury (heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke)
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Water and Healthier Drinks.”
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Mayo Clinic: “Dehydration.”
National Health Service: “Dehydration.” NCH Baker Hospital: “Dehydration.”
Texas Department of State Health Services: “Heat Precautions.”
U.S. Geological Survey: “The Water in You: Water and the Human Body.”
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Common Medical Abbreviations & Terms
Doctors, pharmacists, and other health-care professionals use abbreviations, acronyms, and other terminology for instructions and information in regard to a patient's health condition, prescription drugs they are to take, or medical procedures that have been ordered. There is no approved this list of common medical abbreviations, acronyms, and terminology used by doctors and other health- care professionals. You can use this list of medical abbreviations and acronyms written by our doctors the next time you can't understand what is on your prescription package, blood test results, or medical procedure orders. Examples include:
- ANED: Alive no evidence of disease. The patient arrived in the ER alive with no evidence of disease.
- ARF: Acute renal (kidney) failure
- cap: Capsule.
- CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure. A treatment for sleep apnea.
- DJD: Degenerative joint disease. Another term for osteoarthritis.
- DM: Diabetes mellitus. Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- HA: Headache
- IBD: Inflammatory bowel disease. A name for two disorders of the gastrointestinal (BI) tract, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
- JT: Joint
- N/V: Nausea or vomiting.
- p.o.: By mouth. From the Latin terminology per os.
- q.i.d.: Four times daily. As in taking a medicine four times daily.
- RA: Rheumatoid arthritis
- SOB: Shortness of breath.
- T: Temperature. Temperature is recorded as part of the physical examination. It is one of the "vital signs."
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