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Dehydration 101: What You Need to Know to Stay Healthy

Make no mistake — the signs and symptoms of dehydration can steamroll you on a hot summer day... But dehydration can also undermine your health behind the scenes. Fatigue, headaches and brain fog are just a few of the dehydration symptoms to look out for.

In this article, we break down the warning signs of dehydration and how to spot them. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a DIY master’s degree in the symptoms of dehydration. Let’s get started!

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Dehydration 101: What You Need to Know to Stay Healthy

What is Dehydration? What Causes It?

Dehydration is the loss of bodily fluids and/or electrolytes. It happens when you lose more fluids or electrolytes than you take in.

Dehydration is caused by bodily functions that increase fluid and electrolyte loss, including:

  • Sweating: Sweating is part of the body’s natural cooling-down process. When sweat evaporates on the surface of the skin, body heat escapes with it, but you lose fluids and electrolytes in the process (1).
  • Urination: Urination is how the body releases toxic byproducts from digestion. Urine contains water and electrolytes that need to be replaced.
  • Diarrhea/Vomiting: Illnesses that involve diarrhea and vomiting cause you to lose fluids and electrolytes.

  • High temperatures, intense exercise and illness accelerates fluid loss and dehydration. Fortunately, you can fix mild dehydration by drinking water and taking electrolyte supplements at home, but more on that later...

    Who Is Most At Risk for Dehydration?

    Young children, elderly adults, athletes and chronically ill patients are the most likely to get dehydrated.

    Here’s a full list of people who are most at risk:

    • Elderly adults often don’t notice the early warning signs of dehydration. They also tend to consume less water and electrolytes.
    • Children and infants lose fluids up to seven times faster than adults.
    • Athletes lose a ton of water and electrolytes from sweating. Bodybuilders and swimmers are most at risk.
    • People who have physically active jobs, like construction workers and farmers, experience higher rates of dehydration.
    • Residents living in hot climates sweat more and need to drink more fluids and electrolytes to make up for it.
    • Chronically ill patients lose fluids and electrolytes faster and are less likely to drink water (2).
    • Patients recovering from viruses or surgeries typically drink less water due to decreased thirst and appetite.
    • People with kidney damage suffer from the a disruption of the body’s ability to regulate electrolyte levels in the blood.
    • People with endocrine disorders and hormonal imbalances have kidneys that burn more electrolytes that normal.
    • People with digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are more likely to develop electrolyte imbalances (3).
    • A poor diet that’s low on electrolyte-containing foods can lead to dehydration.

    Mild to Moderate Dehydration: Signs and Symptoms

    Mild dehydration begins at just 2 percent fluid loss. Moderate dehydration, on the other hand, occurs at 5 percent. Factor in the loss of electrolytes, and the early side effects of dehydration can begin even sooner.

    The most common signs and symptoms of mild-to-moderate dehydration include:

    Fortunately, you can usually treat mild to moderate dehydration at home with electrolyte-enhanced water, but more on that in a sec...

    Severe Dehydration: Signs and Symptoms

    Severe dehydration happens when you lose 10+ percent of your bodily fluids and it’s considered a medical emergency. Factor in exposure to heat and sunshine and you can have a dangerous situation on your hands.

    Common symptoms of severe dehydration include:

    • Extreme thirst
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Low blood pressure
    • Lack of sweat
    • Dark urine
    • Sunken eyes
    • Irritability
    • Confusion
    • Delirium
    • Lack of tear production
    • Skin that’s shriveled and doesn’t “bounce back” after being pinched or stretched

    Act quickly if you notice any of these signs! Chances are, you’ll need IV fluids to avoid organ damage and other serious health complications.

    Older Adults: Severe Dehydration Symptoms

    Severe dehydration can be especially life-threatening for older adults. The most common signs of severe dehydration in the elderly are:

    • Diarrhea
    • Blood in the stool
    • Inability to drink fluids without vomiting
    • Disorientation

    Children: Severe Dehydration Symptoms

    Severe dehydration presents differently in very young children. According to a recent study, “Infants and young children are particularly susceptible to diarrheal disease and dehydration” (5). The most common symptoms of dehydration in children and infants are:

    • Unusually dry diapers
    • No tears when they cry
    • Clammy, cold extremities
    • Chronic fatigue and low energy

    Pregnancy: Severe Dehydration Symptoms

    During pregnancy, you process fluids and electrolytes much faster, so it’s easy to under-hydrate. Common symptoms of severe dehydration in pregnancy include:

    • Dry mouth
    • Sunken eyes
    • Extreme thirst
    • Sudden drop in blood pressure
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Dry skin and poor elasticity
    • Braxton-Hicks contractions, or contractions that feel like real labor but are false alarms

    Electrolytes and Dehydration

    What are electrolytes? Electrolytes are naturally-occurring compounds that conduct an electrical charge in the body...

    The most important electrolytes in the human body are:

    • Sodium
    • Chloride
    • Potassium
    • Magnesium
    • Calcium
    • Phosphate

    These electrolytes balance fluid levels and regulate a lot of important functions, including your heartbeat, muscle contractions, immunity and brain activity (6).

    Types of Dehydration: Loss of Water vs. Loss of Electrolytes

    Dehydration happens when you lose too much water, too many electrolytes, or both. The three main types of dehydration are:

    • Hypernatremic or hypertonic = loss of water
    • Hyponatremic or hypotonic = loss of electrolytes (mostly sodium)
    • Isonatremic or isotonic = loss of water and electrolytes

    There are subtle differences between the symptoms of each type of dehydration. In general, the symptoms of fluid loss are less severe than the symptoms of electrolyte loss.

    Common Symptoms of Fluid Loss

    • Thirst
    • Dry Mouth
    • Decreased urination
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle weakness
    • Dizziness
    • Headache

    Common Symptoms of Electrolyte and Fluid Loss

    • Extreme thirst
    • Dry mucous membranes
    • Poor skin elasticity
    • Muscle twitching
    • Stiffness and soreness in the muscles and joints
    • Convulsions
    • Irritability
    • Confusion
    • Digestive issues

    The smooth muscles of the digestive tract need enough water and electrolytes in order to contract. This is why electrolyte imbalances and low water levels can cause constipation, diarrhea, cramping and hemorrhoids.

    How Doctors Diagnose Dehydration

    After taking a look at your medical history, your doctor will go over your symptoms to rule out other more serious conditions. They should also check your heart rate and blood pressure, because rapid heart rate and low blood pressure can be signs of dehydration. Your doctor may also test your blood for electrolyte imbalances. Electrolytes levels say a lot about how well your kidneys are working. A urinalysis can also be helpful, because low electrolytes and high bacterial levels are linked to dehydration (7).

    Skin elasticity is another useful test. When you pinch the skin on your arms, it should bounce back to normal almost immediately. This is called skin “turgor.” If the skin “tents,” or sticks together under the surface, it’s a classic sign of severe dehydration.

    Long-Term Complications of Untreated Dehydration

    Dehydration can lead to serious complications over time, including:

    • Low blood volume
    • Heat cramps
    • Heatstroke
    • Heat exhaustion
    • Kidney failure
    • Seizures
    • Comas

    But even mild dehydration symptoms, like chronic fatigue, can make it harder to enjoy life.

    How to Prevent Dehydration Naturally

    With the right diet and lifestyle choices, you can prevent dehydration from happening in the first place. Here are a few quick tips to keeping your body fully stocked on fluids and electrolytes:

    Limit Sun & Heat Exposure

    Exercising in the hot sun is fine in short bursts, but it increases the risk of dehydration over time. The more you sweat, the faster you lose precious water and electrolytes.

    Eat Electrolyte-Rich Foods

    Cucumbers, celery, spinach, kale, avocados, broccoli, almonds, strawberries, oranges, bananas, and coconuts are loaded with electrolytes that prevent dehydration.

    Introduce an Electrolyte Supplement

    Electrolyte supplements are a great way to keep your electrolyte levels up throughout the day. Our favorite? A flavorless hydration boost that you can easily squeeze into the beverages you’re already drinking. Unfortunately, sports drinks won’t cut it because they contain too much sugar and artifical ingredients.

    No matter what, stay on the lookout for the warning signs of dehydration, like thirst and dry mouth. Believe it or not, if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Catching it early can save you a lot of headaches... literally. Stay hydrated out there!

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    Keywords:

    Signs and symptoms of dehydration, Common signs and symptoms of dehydration, Symptoms of dehydration, Signs of dehydration, Warning signs of dehydration, Dehydration symptoms, What is dehydration, Early side effects of dehydration, Severe dehydration symptoms, Sign of severe dehydration, Symptoms of dehydration in children, Signs of severe dehydration in the elderly, Severe dehydration in pregnancy, Signs and symptoms of fluid loss

    References:

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1385917/pdf/annsurg00384-0260.pdf
    3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15656483/
    4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4207053/
    5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK436022/
    6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234935/
    7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555956/
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