Everyone needs water to survive. Water delivers nutrients and oxygen to cells throughout our bodies. It protects and moistens organs and tissue, and carries wastes out of the body. Water also controls body temperature by making sweat to cool you down when you become hot. Our bodies lose fluids every day through urination, perspiration, and even when we breathe. These fluids need to be replaced. While every person’s body is different, most adults should drink about 8 glasses (1 glass = 8 ounces) of fluids every day, and most children over age four should drink about 6-10 glasses every day.
What is dehydration?
When your body does not have enough water or liquid, it cannot work the way it should. This is called dehydration. Dehydration occurs when the body loses liquid more quickly than it is replaced. This can happen as a result of:
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Increased perspiration caused by fever, exercise, or hot and humid weather
- Drinking alcoholic or caffeinated beverages that increase urination (coffee, tea, or soda)
- Taking certain medications that increase urination (diuretics, antihistamines or blood pressure medications)
- Bladder infections or urinary tract infections
- Eating certain foods (especially salty foods or broths)
- Pregnancy or breastfeeding
- The same things that commonly cause dehydration – diarrhea, vomiting, and increased sweating or urination - also cause your body to lose electrolytes. Electrolytes are salts and minerals (including sodium, potassium and chloride) that dissolve in your blood. A proper balance of electrolytes is necessary for cells, organs and the nervous system to function properly. Losing electrolytes during dehydration can cause your blood pressure to drop, and make you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
How can I tell if someone is dehydrated?
Symptoms of dehydration can be mild or severe. If someone is dehydrated, he or she may experience:
- Dizziness, especially when moving or standing up
- A dry, sticky mouth
- Less frequent urination
- Dark urine
- An inability to produce sweat or tears
- Sunken eyes
- Dry, shriveled skin
- Sleepiness, tiredness or confusion
Unfortunately, thirst isn’t always the best gauge of the body’s need for water, especially in children or older adults. The color of a person’s urine may be a better indicator. Clear or light-colored urine usually means that a person is well-hydrated, whereas a dark yellow or amber color signals they are not drinking enough water.
What should I do if someone I support is dehydrated?
You should get immediate medical attention if you notice signs or possible causes of severe dehydration, such as:
- Dizziness that does not go away
- Very little or no urination for 8 hours
- Severe diarrhea
- Vomiting that lasts longer than 12 hours
- Confusion, exhaustion, or fainting
- Extreme fussiness/sleepiness in children, and irritability and confusion in adults
- “Sunken” eyes
- Dry, shriveled skin
- Painful urination
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty breathing
If someone you support is mildly dehydrated, you can help by encouraging that person to drink more fluids and to continue eating a healthy diet, including fruits and vegetables (foods that contain a lot of water). You can also recommend that they avoid salty foods, milk, soda, fruit juice, coffee, or tea.
Adults who are moderately dehydrated can sip a sports drink (like Gatorade™) to replenish electrolytes and other nutrients. Children should NOT drink adult sports drinks. Look for rehydration drinks specifically intended for children (like Pedialyte™ or Rehydralyte™). Check with a doctor first for recommendations.
Who is most likely to become dehydrated?
Anyone can become dehydrated, but common risk factors make some people more likely than others to become dehydrated. Some common risk factors include:
Young and old age
Babies and young children are more likely to become dehydrated because they experience diarrhea or vomiting more frequently – two ways bodies quickly lose fluids.
Older adults are more likely to become dehydrated because they may not feel thirst when their bodies need water, and they may generally drink and eat less than they should. They may also take medications that cause them to urinate more frequently. In addition, older adults are more likely to have kidney disease, a risk factor described below.
Chronic conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease
Some medical conditions affect the amount of fluid a person retains in their body. For example, diabetes can cause more frequent urination. Because the kidneys are very important to the body’s ability to manage fluids, malfunctioning kidneys can cause an imbalance of fluids in the body leading to dehydration.
Conditions that cause diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite
Diarrhea and vomiting are both ways people can lose fluids too quickly. However, solid food is also an important source of hydration. If someone you support loses their appetite and is eating less than they should, they may not be getting enough fluid in their body.
Medications that can lead to dehydration
Some medications increase the risk of dehydration by causing the body to lose more fluid than normal. These include:
- Blood pressure medications
- Psychiatric medications
How can I help the people I support to prevent dehydration?
The best way to prevent dehydration among the people you support is to encourage them to drink the right amount of fluids every day. You should pay special attention to people with limited mobility and to older adults to make sure they have access to water or juice between mealtimes. Clear or pale yellow urine is the easiest way to know if someone is drinking enough fluids.
Make sure the people you support drink plenty of fluids, especially:
- When they are sick
- On hot, humid days
- On dry, winter days
- Before, during, and after exercise or other strenuous activities
- If they are taking medications that increase the risk of dehydration
You can also recommend that they:
- Avoid physical activity during the hottest part of the day
- Wear light, loose fitting clothing on hot days
- Avoid food and drinks that can cause dehydration, such as alcohol and caffeine
Where can I find resources about dehydration?
The best way to learn more is by talking to your doctor.
You can find out more about dehydration on the internet:
- WebMD – Dehydration: Home Treatment
- eMedicine Health – Dehydration in Adults
- eMedicine Health – Dehydration in Children
- Mayo Clinic – Prevention and Treatment
- Dehydration: How to Recognize and Prevent Its Effects
You can also find presentations about diarrhea and dehydration on the DDS Safety Net: