In this article:
- Extreme loss of water from the body is known as dehydration and is mostly accompanied by salt (sodium chloride) depletion as well.
- Dehydration can happen due to various factors such as fever, diarrhea, alcohol intake, and caffeine consumption, etc.
- Several home remedies and medical therapies can be employed for the treatment of dehydration, depending on the cause.
- Dehydration is linked to many complications and risk factors.
- A severe case of dehydration can cause hallucinations.
Excessive loss of water from the tissues in the body is called dehydration. An individual gets dehydrated when the body fluids are secreted out and not replenished, primarily due to a lack of water intake.
The reduced water content of the body creates an imbalance of minerals such as potassium, sodium, and chloride as well as sugar and electrolytes. This state can harm the normal metabolic functioning of the body.
Nearly 60% of the human body is made up of water. Optimal water levels in the body help in the lubrication of joints and eyes, removal of waste and toxins, proper digestion, and maintenance of healthy skin.
Dehydration is prevalent among people of all age groups. Older adults, babies, and young children are more prone to dehydration. Mild cases of dehydration can be prevented and treated by increasing the consumption of fluids.
Moderate dehydration requires medical care and is commonly treated by administering fluids intravenously. However, severe dehydration can be fatal and should be treated urgently.
Causes of Dehydration
Dehydration can result from various reasons that include:
- Excessive sweating due to hot weather, sauna, or exercise
- Some chronic disorders
- Active bleeding
- Frequent urination (due to diabetes or use of medicines such as diuretics)
- Excessive alcohol intake (alcohol acts as a diuretic)
- Excessive caffeine intake (caffeine is a diuretic)
- Lack of water intake (due to not feeling thirsty or sicknesses such as nausea or sore throat)
- Cold weather does not let you feel thirsty often, leading to decreased water intake.
- Hot weather increases perspiration rates.
- People living at higher altitudes require higher water intake.
Optimum Fluid Levels
Maintaining fluid levels in the body is necessary for its proper functioning. A lack of fluids can make you irritable and lethargic, can affect your sleep quality, and can hamper your performance. Thus, to retain a good quality life, you should consume an optimal amount of fluids daily.
There are no defined values for the amount of plain water youths, and adults should drink daily. However, there are recommendations for the total water intake required daily, which can be met by the consumption of various foods and beverages.
The sixth report in the series of Dietary Reference Intakes (consensus reports that provide reference values for the required nutritional intake by Canadians and Americans) published by the Food and Nutrition Board suggests amounts of total water intake for both genders. (1)
It recommends women to consume approximately 2.7 liters or 91 ounces of total water every day, including all foods and beverages. For men, the suggested amount is 3.7 liters or 125 ounces of total water daily. (1)
Roughly 80% of the total water intake of an individual is met with water and beverages, including caffeinated drinks, while the other 20% is provided by food. (1)
Signs of Dehydration
The onset of dehydration can be recognized by the following symptoms:
- Skin dryness
- Reduced urination or dark-colored urine (dark-colored urine may also be due to other reasons)
- Eye twitching
- Muscle cramps
The following symptoms are associated with severe dehydration:
- Dry mouth/eyes
- Dizziness, vertigo
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
Dehydration in babies produces symptoms such as:
- Sunken soft spot on the head (fontanelle)
- Lack of tears
- Lack of urination
Diagnosis of Dehydration
Diagnosing dehydration can be made with the help of a few routine tests that may include the following:
- Checking the vital signs such as the pulse, blood pressure, and temperature
- Urine test to determine the dehydration level
- Blood tests to assess the electrolyte levels, kidney function, and extent of dehydration
Treatment for Dehydration
Mild dehydration can be treated by increasing the intake of water. For mild dehydration, solutions that contain salt are recommended. For moderate and severe cases, replenishment of electrolytes including potassium and sodium is necessary.
The use of oral rehydration solutions available over the counter is beneficial as they contain defined levels of electrolytes needed by the body.
ORS (oral rehydration solution) is chiefly used for the treatment of mild dehydration in children that results from diarrhea or vomiting.
Severe cases of dehydration require medical care. Intravenous (IV) solutions that contain sodium chloride are given. The IV solutions are administered at a fast pace initially, and the rate is then lowered with improvement in hydration status.
Some patients may require treatment that is specific to the cause of the dehydration. For example, the doctor may prescribe medications to treat diarrhea or vomiting if it is the underlying cause of the dehydration.
Preventive Self-Care Measures
A few measures and lifestyle changes can help in the prevention of dehydration:
- Drink optimum amounts of water daily (8-10 glasses of 8 ounces).
- Keep yourself hydrated, especially when sick.
- Increase your fluid consumption during hot and humid weather to replenish the water lost by sweating.
- Rest in cool places, and avoid exercising if you feel dehydrated.
- If you are suffering from an ailment such as gastroenteritis, avoid consuming coffee, soda, or any beverage with a high sugar content when dehydrated.
Caffeine might stimulate diarrhea, and soda may cause GI irritation. There is not much evidence to suggest that coffee or soda must not be taken if mildly dehydrated unless there is any such underlying condition. (2)
- Eat bland foods during dehydrated conditions.
- Drink sports drinks if you feel dehydrated after strenuous physical activity.
Home Remedies for Dehydration
1. Increase Water Intake
Increasing water consumption is the primary treatment for dehydration. Taking small sips of water or other clear fluids at regular intervals can help in maintaining water levels and rehydrating the body.
A study conducted in 2017 assessed the performance of athletes after fluid intake post dehydration. It was demonstrated that the intake of fluids after dehydration could boost prolonged exercise performance under heat-stress situations. (3)
Fluid intake helped the athletes, although the given amount of fluid was insufficient for complete rehydration, and the water level of the body remained low. (3)
Do the following to manage dehydration:
- Consume electrolyte-rich or carbohydrate-rich beverages.
- Suck on popsicles, ice chips, or frozen bottled water.
- Consume sports drinks.
- Drink flavored water, such as cucumber water.
- Drink lemon water to rehydrate, refresh, and energize your body.
2. Replenish with Homemade ORS
Oral rehydration solution (ORS) contains a predefined mixture of dry salts that can be dissolved in sterile water and consumed. ORS is useful for quick replenishment of lost water and minerals.
A study published in 2010 in the International Journal of Epidemiology supported the use of ORS for treating dehydration caused by diarrhea in community, home, or facility environments. (4)
To prepare ORS at home, mix the following ingredients until dissolved:
- Six teaspoons of sugar
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- One liter boiled and cooled water or bottled water
ORS, approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), is also available over the counter. (5)
One may consume 50 – 100 ml/kg of ORS in a span of 2 to 4 hours or as recommended by their healthcare provider.
3. Eat Yogurt
Yogurt is a good source of natural electrolytes and probiotics and helps in soothing the stomach. It is easily digested and helps in rebalancing the gut microflora.
How to use:
- Consume a cup of yogurt 2-3 times a day. Add some cottage cheese if desired.
- Eat yogurt with plain boiled rice and some salt.
4. Feed on Water-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
Proper hydration of the body is vital, as the water supports all the 11 organ systems of the body. The body’s water levels can be maintained by drinking water and by eating water-rich vegetables and fruits.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the period 2015-2020 advise the consumption of 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily.
A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that the daily consumption of fruits and vegetables may also help in improving water levels in children. (7)
Vegetables and fruits with particularly high water content also contain minerals, sugars, and hydrating salts.
Thus, these foods act similarly to the isotonic drinks taken by athletes. By increasing your consumption of water-rich foods, you can get relief from mild dehydration.
How to use:
- Consume water-rich foods as snacks.
- Add fruits and vegetables to salads and use them to make smoothies.
5. Drink Coconut Water
Hot weather can make you sweat profusely and can increase your chances of heat exhaustion. While drinking water can help in this situation, coconut water may be more effective and quicker as it is readily absorbed by the body.
Consumption of coconut water can help relieve dehydration. It has ample amounts of electrolytes, a low-calorie count, and a low sugar content. It is also known to be extremely hydrating.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found a similarity of benefits between coconut water and sports drinks. (8)
How to use: Consume a few glasses of coconut water daily.
6. Consume Buttermilk
Buttermilk can help in relieving mild dehydration by supplying the essential minerals lost due to profuse sweating.
A study conducted in 2018 showed that regular consumption of buttermilk by well-nourished individuals could help in alleviating heat strain. (9)
How to use:
- Drink 2-3 glasses of buttermilk daily for nourishment and rehydration.
- Mix ½ teaspoon of dry ginger in 1 cup of buttermilk and drink this mixture a few times daily.
Risk Factors for Dehydration
Various factors can predispose you to dehydration, which includes:
- Old age, young age
- Kidney problems
- Low body weight
- Extremely hot environment
- Use of multiple medications, especially diuretics
- Acute illness with associated fever, vomiting or diarrhea
- Vigorous exercise and climbing to high elevations
- Extensive burns (including sunburns)
Complications Associated with Dehydration
If dehydration is persistent and not treated promptly, you can develop severe health complications that include:
- Heatstroke or heat exhaustion (A dehydrated body cannot produce sweat for cooling down; as a result, the body temperature becomes extremely high.)
- Seizures which can be triggered by severe dehydration
- Urinary and kidney disorders including kidney failure
- Low blood volume, shock, and heart failure
- Brain damage
- Death (Although extremely rare, severe dehydration can be fatal due to failure in blood circulation.)
Can dehydration cause headaches?
Headaches are a common effect of mild and moderate dehydration. Dehydration headaches result from the momentary contraction of blood vessels in the brain due to fluid loss. They may range from mild to severe headaches, such as migraines.
Can dehydration lead to heatstroke?
Sweating is a mechanism of the body to control its internal temperature. A dehydrated individual cannot sweat, leading to an increase in body temperature. A very high body temperature, above 104 °F, can cause heatstroke.
Does dehydration cause constipation?
Constipation is a common problem among all age groups. It is characterized by a change in the weight, volume, consistency, frequency, and ease of passage of stool.
A study conducted in 2013 showed that loss of fluid and restricted fluid intake, leading to dehydration, increased the risk of constipation. (10)
Can dehydration cause hallucinations?
Severe dehydration can lead to confusion, delusions, and if untreated, coma. Severe dehydration can also lead to heatstroke, which further causes hallucinations. This is a rare complication associated with dehydration.
Can crying cause dehydration?
Crying in itself cannot cause dehydration but can contribute to low water levels if you have reduced fluid intake.
Can improper sleep cause dehydration?
Body water level and sleep are interconnected. During sleeping, around 1 liter of water is lost through humidity in breathing, making you feel dehydrated upon waking up.
However, improper sleep can prevent the release of vasopressin, an important hormone involved in hydration. Disturbance in sleep can also make the kidney prone to disease, according to some studies.
Kidney disorders promote dehydration. Thus, to maintain kidney health, the consumption of water is essential.
Is dehydration common in Alzheimer’s disease?
An aspect of Alzheimer’s disease causes significant and severe memory loss. Patients with this disease may forget to eat or drink fluids. They can become seriously malnourished and dehydrated as a result.
Also, patients with Alzheimer’s disease are on several prescription medications that include cholinesterase inhibitors and antipsychotic drugs, which can cause fluid loss.
Additionally, the use of diuretics, blood pressure drugs, and antidepressants can promote dehydration.
Dehydration triggers the brain to pass signals to the pituitary gland for the secretion of vasopressin. Vasopressin causes the blood vessels to constrict, resulting in increased blood pressure. This condition can result in transient hypertension.
If dehydration persists and becomes severe, the blood pressure will fall, and this is a medical emergency.
Is dehydration common in patients with diabetes?
High levels of glucose in the blood cause a decrease in hydration levels of the body. Therefore, patients with diabetes mellitus are prone to dehydration.
Another disorder known as diabetes insipidus increases the frequency of urination and causes dehydration. Diabetes insipidus is due to an inability to concentrate the urine.
Is dehydration fatal?
If fluid and subsequent mineral loss is not promptly replaced, the body gets dehydrated. Prolonged severe dehydration can be fatal and can lead to death.
When to See a Doctor
It is recommended to seek medical attention if you are dehydrated and experience any of the following symptoms:
- Sunken eyes
- Extreme thirst
- Dry mouth and dry eyes
- Lack of sweat
- Dry skin
- Red and hot skin
- Rapid breathing
- Bloody or black stool
- Persistent vomiting over several hours
- Diarrhea for more than a day that is frequent and not improving (If the condition is steadily and rapidly improving for 3 days, it is not usually necessary to call in medical assistance unless it is not resolved by day 4.)
- Inability to retain fluids
- Wrinkled skin with other symptoms stated above (It is important to keep in mind that even without dehydration, skin wrinkles are not always known to respond to increased fluid intake.)
While mild dehydration can be treated without medications, it is important to consult your doctor if you are severely dehydrated. Timely treatment of dehydration can help in the prevention of complications.
What you may ask your doctor:
- What is the reason behind my dehydration?
- How can I prevent dehydration?
- Do I need to stop taking any medications due to my dehydration?
- Do I need tests to find out the cause of my dehydration?
- What treatment should I follow?
What your doctor may ask you:
- When did you become sick, and how long have you been ill?
- What symptoms are you experiencing?
- Are people around you experiencing similar symptoms?
- How much water do you consume daily?
- How often do you drink alcohol?
- How long have you been experiencing dehydration?
- Do you have other symptoms or problems?
- Have you undergone any treatment?
An imbalance between the loss of water from the body and fluid intake results in dehydration. This condition may reduce the amount of minerals, sugars, and salts in the blood and may cause metabolic problems.
Severe dehydration can lead to a decline in blood volume and cause serious harm to your vital organs.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Amber Robins, MD (Family Doctor)
For most women, dehydration during pregnancy could lead to uterine contractions at various stages of pregnancy.
The concern for anyone, whether pregnant or not, would be that severe dehydration can lead to low blood pressure and less blood reaching the vital organs.
Optimum blood pressure and good blood circulation are needed for the body to work properly. To avoid the unpleasant effects of dehydration, pregnant women should ensure to drink enough water, especially during warm weather.
Milk can be used for rehydration, although water or a drink with electrolytes is even better. For those with diarrhea or vomiting, drinking something with electrolytes is preferred to replace those that were lost.
Milk can help increase calcium levels but is not the go-to for rehydration.
The body has a way to compensate for minor dehydration, which does not severely affect organs. However, with very severe dehydration that is caused by low fluid intake or excessive bleeding, the body can go into shock, which can affect the brain, liver, kidneys, and heart.
The pinching test usually detects severe dehydration, but it is not common for people to reach this point. A sign that you are dehydrated in the earlier stages is concentrated urine. The more yellow your urine is, the more dehydrated you likely are.
Coffee can cause dehydration as it is a diuretic, which increases urine production. Frequent urination leads to fluid loss from the body. To balance out the effects of coffee, drink more water to replenish the lost fluids.
The simplest test to know whether you are hydrated is by looking at your urine. If your urine is clear, it is more likely that you are hydrated. To avoid dehydration, it is good to plan specific times during the day to rehydrate.
If you know that you will be in a warm climate, you should carry water with you to hydrate throughout the day.
About Dr. Amber Robins, MD (Family Doctor): Dr. Robins is a board-certified family medicine doctor practicing in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and the owner of Camillia Wellness & Aesthetics, LLC.
She is currently a Health and Media fellow at Georgetown University and PBS News Hour. Dr. Robins is the author and founder of “The Chronicles of Women in White Coats” and “The Write Prescription: Finding the ‘Right’ Spiritual Dosage to Overcome Any Obstacle.”