Water plays a supporting role in every part of the body. It aids metabolism and nourishes the tissues, organs, blood, lymph and other fluids, helping them transport nutrients where needed throughout the body. Water helps regulate our body temperature, lubricates the joints, protects the spinal cord, and helps eliminate toxins and waste.
Dehydration occurs when we use or lose more fluid than we take in. We lose water through perspiration, breathing and elimination, and we naturally replace lost fluids by drinking water and other beverages when we are thirsty.
Dehydration can affect people of all ages and fitness levels. In infants and children, fever, vomiting and diarrhea are common causes of dehydration. In adults and older people, certain medications and conditions, such as diabetes, can cause dryness of the mouth and tissues, eventually leading to dehydration. Athletes and fitness buffs who sweat excessively during physical exertion or prolonged exposure to hot, humid weather can also become dehydrated—but it can happen just as easily while swimming or skiing. The elderly are especially susceptible to dehydration as thirst levels often decrease with age.
DEHYDRATION AFFECTS BODY AND MIND
Studies have uncovered an array of negative effects of even mild dehydration. Inadequate fluid consumption can affect your mood, motivation and ability to concentrate. It can cause headaches and rob you of energy, making simple tasks seem overwhelming.
Long term or chronic dehydration can lead to constipation, urinary tract infections, heart palpitations, kidney stones or kidney failure. Some cases of extreme dehydration, coupled with an electrolyte imbalance, can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, or a life-threatening complication known as hypovolemic shock.
WARNING SIGNS OF DEHYDRATION
Mild dehydration, if unaddressed, can lead to more serious consequences, such as overheating, cramping, heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which is potentially life-threatening. In adolescents and adults, the early signs of dehydration include:
- Extreme thirst
- Flushed skin
- Faster breathing or pulse rate
- Increased body temperature
In infants and young children, watch for these signs of dehydration:
- Dry mouth and tongue
- No tears when crying
- No wet diapers for three hours
- Listlessness or irritability
If you or a family member experience these symptoms, try to replace fluids as soon as you can. See your doctor if the condition persists for more than a few hours.
WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
Extreme dehydration can lead to life-threatening complications that include organ failure, seizures, or a severe drop in blood pressure. Although rare, these situations can result from fluid loss due to prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, severe burns, or other trauma.
The following signs of advanced or chronic dehydration should be evaluated by a medical professional:
- Less frequent urination or dark-colored urine
- Extreme fatigue or weakness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or unconsciousness
- Confusion or irritability
Seek immediate medical care if you or a loved one
- Has had diarrhea for 24 hours or more
- Is irritable, disoriented or unusually drowsy
- Can’t keep down fluids
- Has bloody or black stools
TIPS FOR STAYING HYDRATED
There are two schools of thought regarding hydration. One is to drink 6-8 glasses of water every day (and some health authorities recommend far more). The other rule of thumb is to drink when you are thirsty.
Generally, most children and adults should consume several eight-ounce beverages each day. The closer to plain water the better: drinks containing sugar and caffeine are okay in a pinch, but you shouldn’t rely on them as your main source of hydration.
Bottom line: Thirst can be an unreliable indicator of the body’s need for water. Many people, particularly older adults, don’t feel thirsty until they’re already dehydrated. That’s why it’s important to increase water intake during hot weather, before and after exercise, when you’re ill—and of course, when you’re extra thirsty.
“Dehydration.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dehydration/symptoms-causes/syc-20354086.
“How staying hydrated helps your body.” Abbott Labs/Nutrition News https://www.nutritionnews.abbott/healthy-living/diet-wellness/how-staying-hydrated-helps-your-body/
“Ten ways to tell if you’re dehydrated.” Eco-Watch, Mar. 13, 2017. https://www.ecowatch.com/signs-of-dehydration-2303117403.html
“Yes. Dehydration Affects Your Mental Health.” Mind Body Seven.https://www.mindbody7.com/news/2018/1/12/dehyrdation-affects-your-mental-health-more-than-you-think