Chronic Dehydration: What is it and How Long Does it Take to Recover?

An estimated 75 percent of Americans have been found to suffer from chronic dehydration, which can have serious effects on the body. In addition to not performing and feeling your best, chronic dehydration can cause people to develop serious long-term health conditions. While many people experience acute dehydration in specific circumstances, like extensive physical activity or prolonged exposure to a hot environment, chronic dehydration is more serious. What is chronic dehydration and how long does it take to recover?

What is dehydration and what are the symptoms?

Dehydration is a medical condition that occurs when the body consumes less fluid than it excretes, which results in a fluid deficiency.  The body is made up of 60 percent water overall, and our muscles are 75 percent water, while our brain is 85 percent water. When left without an adequate water supply, these systems lose the ability to function properly. Most people lose fluid when they sweat during exercise or on a hot day, or when they excrete fluid as they urinate, but people also lose fluid when they are sick as a result of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Although there are many different factors that can impact the balance of fluids in the body, maintaining the proper levels of electrolytes is one of the most important. Electrolytes are positively or negatively charged mineral ions that dissolve when exposed to water. These crucial minerals perform hundreds of different tasks in the body, but one of the most important roles that electrolytes play is maintaining the proper balance of fluids in the body. People lose electrolytes in the same ways that they lose fluids, including through urine, diarrhea, sweat, and vomiting, and dehydration also follows closely behind an electrolyte imbalance. People most frequently experience dehydration when they exercise for an extended period of time or at a very high intensity, when living in hot or humid climates or high altitudes, and when they are sick. However, no matter what your activity level or where you live, it is possible to experience dehydration if you do not drink enough fluids. The age groups most prone to experiencing dehydration include senior citizens and very young children, but anyone can experience dehydration no matter what their age.

What is chronic dehydration?

Chronic dehydration occurs when dehydration continues for longer periods of time. The condition is unique from acute dehydration because it may not be influenced by how much fluid you take in on any given day. Although people suffering from chronic dehydration do take in less water than they use on an average day, there may be some days where they take in a sufficient amount of fluid. With chronic dehydration, the body is forced to function without an adequate supply of water. If chronic dehydration becomes significant, it can require medical attention and contributes to serious health conditions, including high blood pressure and kidney stones. Chronic dehydration can range from mild to severe, and it most typically affects athletes and older adults, as well as people who sweat profusely on a daily basis due to their working environments or living conditions. 

What are the symptoms of acute and chronic dehydration?

Acute dehydration is most commonly evidenced by experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Extreme thirst
  • Dark colored urine
  • Reduced urination
  • Confusion
  • Increased heart rate

Compared to acute dehydration, the symptoms of chronic dehydration can be a bit different. People suffering from chronic dehydration may experience some of the above symptoms or none at all. The body adapts to chronic dehydration over time, which means that people eventually may become less sensitive to low intake of water. The body adapts to functioning with less water and will do so regardless of how much you ingest. As a result, signs of chronic dehydration may continue for a while even after you drink the appropriate amount of fluid. Signs of chronic dehydration include:

  • Dry or flaky skin
  • Constant fatigue
  • Frequent headaches
  • Constipation
  • Ongoing muscle weakness
  • Lack of focus

One health condition that has consistently been linked with chronic dehydration is urolithiasis, or the formation of stones in the kidneys, urinary tract, or bladder. Low water intake may also cause people to consume more calories, as people sometimes feel more hungry as a result of dehydration and intake more calories as a result. Increased weight may contribute to a higher risk of experiencing diabetes and obesity, but more studies are needed to determine how chronic dehydration impacts these conditions. Other complications of chronic dehydration include:

  • Decreased kidney function
  • Hypertension
  • Intestinal failure
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Dementia

What are the most common causes of chronic dehydration?

Chronic dehydration can occur as a result of many different causes, and sometimes is the result of several different factors combined. Regardless of the mechanism, chronic dehydration always occurs as a result of people losing more water than they take in over time. Some common causes of chronic dehydration are:

  • Drinking too little water or fluids
  • Exercising for a prolonged period of time or at a high intensity on a regular basis
  • Prolonged vomiting or diarrhea
  • Underlying health conditions
  • Eating a diet that lacks foods with a high water content, including fruits and vegetables
  • Regular exposure to excessive heat
  • Taking diuretic medications
  • Electrolyte imbalances

What are the treatment options for chronic dehydration?

Electrolyte imbalances are often a major factor in cases of chronic dehydration, so drinking water alone is often not enough to restore the proper balance of fluids in the body. Electrolyte drinks or capsules may help you to restore your electrolyte levels to the proper amounts. Another key component in the treatment of chronic dehydration is drinking small amounts of fluids on a regular basis. Chugging water is not the best way to restore fluid levels because large volumes of liquid cause the kidneys to excrete more fluid through the urine. Instead, it is best to sip small amounts of water, about two to three ounces at a time, every few minutes throughout the day. However, some people may not be able to recover from chronic dehydration without medical help. In severe cases, people suffering from chronic dehydration may require medical attention so that fluids can be delivered intravenously, which is a quicker way to rebalance fluid levels. 

How long does it take to recover from chronic dehydration?

The amount of time it takes to recover from chronic dehydration depends largely on the cause of the dehydration, how long you have been dehydrated, and the severity of the condition. Severe dehydration, particularly when caused by heatstroke, may require hospitalization for intravenous fluids to be administered. In these cases, patients may spend several days in the hospital recovering. Following recovery from the worst of the dehydration, your doctor may want to monitor you for several weeks to track your electrolyte levels, the amount of urine that you are eliminating, and your body temperature. Most people can recover from dehydration within a few days, but you will need to be vigilant about getting the proper amount of fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration from occurring again.

What can you do to prevent chronic dehydration?

After recovering from chronic attention, you’ll need to be careful to prevent the issue from occurring again. The first step to preventing chronic dehydration is to determine the cause for your dehydration. For some people, it may simply be a matter of not consuming enough fluids each day, which can easily be corrected. Others may have an underlying digestive or organ condition that can be impacting their fluid levels and contributing to electrolyte imbalances. People taking certain diuretic medications may be able to prevent chronic dehydration by switching medications. The easiest types of chronic dehydration to prevent are those related to lifestyle, diet, or occupation. Other challenges make addressing chronic dehydration more complicated. Some of the strategies for preventing chronic dehydration include:

  • Tracking your fluid intake with a journal or app
  • Keeping  your stress levels as low as possible
  • Reducing caffeine intake
  • Reduce your alcohol consumption
  • Switch from a diuretic medication to a different medication or reduce your dose

Practical lifestyle tips, like carrying a reusable water bottle with you everywhere you go, can also help reduce the likelihood of experiencing chronic dehydration. Some people do not drink enough fluids simply because they are not readily accessible, so making sure you have access to water at all times can encourage you to drink more. Ensuring that you maintain the proper balance of electrolytes can also be helpful, and there are electrolyte supplements that do not contain sugar, carbohydrates, or added calories, so you don’t need to worry about gaining weight or consuming junk in order to stay hydrated.