Signs of dehydration: What are they and what should you do about it?

Dehydration can happen to any of us — especially during these warm summer months. How can you avoid slipping into a dangerous state of dehydration? Become aware of the signs and symptoms pointing to decreasing fluid levels. A bit of knowledge and foresight can go a long way in keeping you happy and hydrated.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration?

Thirst is a widely known indicator of dehydration. Yet, by the time you feel thirsty, you may be well on your way to advanced dehydration. Headache, dry mouth, dizziness and decreased (or dark yellow) urine output are other common indicators. You may also feel tired and light-headed.

Signs of severe dehydration are quite dangerous:

  • drops in blood pressure,
  • quickening heart rate, and
  • reduced elasticity of the skin.

Dehydration can prevent one from standing up or walking normally, sweating, or crying.

Fever, coma, lethargy, sunken eyes, and confusion are also seen; as well as shock (lack of oxygen and nutrients to cells) and seizure. If left untreated, severe dehydration can be fatal.

Dehydration for Seniors

While the consequences of dehydration can be devastating, it is an easily preventable condition. Unfortunately, many people — especially seniors and children — fall prey to dehydration, making it one of the more deadly afflictions worldwide.

Old age is linked directly to dehydration. The oldest of older adults (85-99 yrs old) are six times more likely to be hospitalized due to dehydration. According to medical data on senior Medicare beneficiaries, nearly 50% of hospital admissions state dehydration as the principal diagnosis.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” — Benjamin Franklin

When it comes to your loved ones, remember to watch for signs of dehydration and take a proactive approach. Mortality rates due to dehydration also increase with age — whether dehydration is the primary diagnosis or an accompanying condition.

Regardless of the reason for hospitalization, you can keep your seniors safe by ensuring they remain properly hydrated.

The Best Ways of Preventing Dehydration

For those of us with access to clean drinking water, staying hydrated is little more than a choice.

Planning ahead is key. Hot days and vigorous activity exponentially increase fluid loss. Check the weather forecast (in advance) and avoid extended periods of time in the sun. Days of both elevated temperature and humidity are especially cause for concern. You can organize outside events in the early morning or after the sun sets to reduce unnecessary exposure to high heat.

If avoiding heat exposure proves difficult, ensure your equipped with water and electrolytes.

Replacing lost fluids with an equal amount of fluid intake is paramount. Water alone isn’t sufficient for proper hydration — in fact, excessive water intake without electrolytes (such as sodium) can lead to potentially fatal conditions, such as hyponatremia. You can quickly obtain optimal electrolyte ratios with an electrolyte supplement and electrolyte liquid concentrate.

You may also want to keep your alcohol intake in mind. Drinking alcohol in the heat does more than impair your judgement — it heightens your body’s loss of water. And those margaritas might also prevent you from noticing your own dehydration. (Whoops.)

Additional prevention strategies to keep in mind:

  • Wearing light-colored clothes that fit loosely can help in the heat.
  • Stepping into a shady spot or air-conditioned area can break the cyclical effects of constant heat exposure.
  • With personal water misters, fans, and tepid wet towels, you can regulate body temperature and reduce sweating (which increases fluid loss).
  • And, as a rule of thumb — bring your low-sugar sports drinks.

For those exercising excessively or in extreme heat, there are a few recommendations to keep your game going. Drink two cups two hours prior to the activity, and another one to two cups shortly before (>15 mins) you begin. During the activity, keep the fluid flowing. Every 15-20 minutes, drink ½ cup to 1 cup. Afterward, if you’ve lost body weight, drink 3 cups per pound lost.

It is equally important to stay hydrated if you are ill. Diarrhea and vomiting lead to rapid water loss. Replenish the amount of water lost by sipping small amounts of fluids frequently. Fever can also lead to dehydration; typically, the higher the fever, the more dehydration occurs. Ice chips, slushies, and frozen popsicles can all help improve fluid intake when someone is sick.

Medical Treatment for Dehydration

While at-home remedies go far in the world of dehydration, hospitalization may be necessary.

Restoring fluid volume and electrolyte levels are the primary concern in the emergency room.

Balancing water and electrolyte levels may occur orally or intravenously, depending on the patient’s condition. If nausea or vomiting are present — or signs of advanced dehydration (such as rapid heart rate or decreased blood pressure) — fluid replacement via IV is often chosen.

Electrolytes or carbohydrate-containing fluids ensure the proper ratio of essential elements in the body. Electrolytes conduct electricity in water. In the body, they ensure proper functioning of the heart, brain, lungs… you name it. These salts — sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate — spark nerve impulses and regulate water flow in cells.

Depending on the individual’s body temperature, the doctor may also decide to cool the body.

Body temperature adapts naturally during the day; the average range is 97°F to 99°F (or 36.1°C to 37.2°C). A fever usually results in a temperature over 100.4°F (38°C). When body temperature reaches 104°F (40°C), the doctor often decides to cool the individual’s body.

Cooling blankets, baths, and evaporation via mists and fans can accomplish this task.

(Excessive cold, however, can worsen dehydration symptoms. Exposing skin to ice packs or ice water can constrict blood vessels and lead to shivering. Shivering increases body temperature.)

The doctor will also attempt to determine the underlying cause(s) of dehydration. If a fever is found to be the root cause, medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be included. Intravenous medication or a rectal suppository is administered if the patient cannot swallow any medication. Antibiotics may be given, if the root cause of dehydration is deemed an infection.

A series of vital signs and tests are taken, including:

  • blood pressure and pulse (when lying down and standing)
  • urinalysis
  • complete blood count (CBC)

During dehydration, the heart must work harder to supply blood to the brain due to a lack of fluid volume. (Lack of blood flow to the brain may result in dizziness or fainting.) The changes in heart rate and blood pressure are especially evident when standing up after lying down. The doctor measures your blood pressure and pulse to estimate the severity of dehydration.

Urinalysis also helps determine the patient’s degree of dehydration. Color, clarity, specific gravity, and presence of ketones in the urine are all indicators. The presence of excessive glucose or protein may alert the physician of severe underlying conditions, such as diabetes or kidney problems. Others signs of infections and diseases may arise through urinalysis, as well.

If an underlying condition is suspected, the doctor may continue to order tests: such as a complete blood count and liver function tests. While dehydration is often easily treated, admission into the hospital for further treatment may be advised in severe cases.

When it comes to dehydration, prevention and immediate treatment is by far the best route. As the severity of your dehydration worsens, so does your prognosis. You can keep yourself and your family safe by staying alert to the signs and symptoms of dehydration.