Many people have felt dehydrated at some point in time, whether it's during exercise, illness, or an exceptionally hot and sweaty summer.
But dehydration can be much more than a headache and an unquenchable thirst. In fact, it can render someone immobile and sick beyond what a light bought of the flu can do. What’s worse, it can be inadvertently self-inflicted.
Dehydration occurs when more fluids are removed from the body than taken in. Through urine, sweat, spit, and stool, the body exudes a great deal of liquid every day in normal circumstances. When enough water isn’t ingested, this fluid doesn’t get sufficiently replaced, and the body becomes imbalanced.
There are varying degrees of dehydration, from very mild to very severe cases requiring hospitalization. Symptoms of mild dehydration include dry mouth and eyes, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, thirst, low urine output, constipation, and dry skin. While the skin will normally resume its shape when pinched, if dehydration is present, a small triangle remains and doesn’t rejoin its surroundings.
As dehydration progresses, the symptoms become more severe. Thirst becomes stronger, and in place of simple tiredness and inactivity, children may become fussy, while adults tend to feel cranky and confused. The eyes and skin seem sunken and shriveled. Blood pressure will drop, while the heartbeat and breathing rate turn rapid. Dizziness may turn to fainting and delirium. The skin will cease to sweat, and a fever may develop. Some patients experience cramped limps. The little urine that comes out is a dark shade, and this color is often the best indication of dehydration.
Even healthy activities can cause dehydration, if not monitored properly. Exercise on hot days means more sweating than normal, and without drinking enough water, dehydration may occur. Taking camping or hiking trips and not bringing adequate water supplies or not having access to clean water can be a serious problem. Even trips to areas where the water isn’t safe for consumption can lead to dehydration.
Serious injuries can even cause dehydration if not monitored carefully. Fluids like pus and blood can leak from these wounds, and even that can be sufficient if enough fluids don't replace those lost. Serious illnesses, of course, are a problem too. Vomiting and diarrhea can be causes on their own or in tandem. Diarrhea means losing a lot of water and electrolytes, and vomiting means the body isn’t getting much nutrition either. If a fever develops during illness, the increased sweating it often causes may result in dehydration. This can be especially dangerous, because the ill person often doesn’t feel up to eating or drinking, thus increasing the risk. Even issues like undiagnosed diabetes can be a culprit, when uncontrollable, constant urination occurs.
In mild cases, particularly in healthy adults, upping water intake may be sufficient to treat dehydration. In the case of illness, make sure to drink as much as possible and to pay careful attention to urine color, fluid intake, and how frequently vomiting or diarrhea occur. In more severe cases, it may be necessary to go the doctor, if not the hospital. The lost fluids and electrolytes must be replaced. Sports drinks can be a good option, or things like pedialyte for small children. Avoid certain foods and beverages, like alcohol, caffeine, and, surprisingly, fruit juice and milk, as may worsen diarrhea. For extreme cases requiring hospitalization, intravenous fluids may be the best option, as they supply hydration immediately and in the right amount.
It is extremely important to act immediately, as a number of complications can arise from dehydration if it’s allowed to run rampant. In exercise, anything from cramping to heat stroke may result. Extreme dehydration may cause seizures, brain swelling, or kidney failure. Additionally, hypovolemic shock may occur, when there becomes so little fluid in the body that there isn’t enough blood flowing. Blood pressure decreases, as does the amount of circulating oxygen. Ultimately, untreated dehydration can lead to a coma or death.