What is Dehydration?

Drink Water!!Dehydration is when the amount of fluid your body is losing is more than the amount of fluid your body is absorbing.

When your normal body fluid levels drop, it affects the balance of minerals (sugar and salts) in your body, meaning your body struggles to function properly.

Water is very important to us as it makes up over two-thirds of a healthy human body. It helps flush out toxins and waste, helps to keep skin healthy, aids digestion and without it, our eyes and joints wouldn't get lubricated.

There are two different types of dehydration, Hypernatraemic and Isotonic.

'Hypernatraemic' means high quantities of salt are in the blood and this form of dehydration is more common in babies and children. Watery diarrhoea and excessive vomiting in children shows that a child is losing more water than salt.

Isotonic Dehydration is generally caused by diarrhoea. It is caused when the amount of salt and water your body is losing is equal to the amount of salt and water surrounding your cells.

What Causes Dehydration?

Dehydration can be caused by many things such as:-

  • Illness - gastroenteritis is where you suffer from constant vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Sweating - Excessive exercise or sweating due to fever, work or hot conditions.
  • Alcohol - Alcohol is a diuretic so it makes you urinate more, leading to dehydration. The headache you get with a 'hangover' indicates that your body is dehydrated.
  • Diabetes - Having diabetes means you have high levels of glucose in your bloodstream. This means you are at risk of dehydration because your kidneys try to remove the glucose, by making more urine, meaning you urinate more, putting you at risk of becoming dehydrated.

What is the Recommended Daily Fluid Intake?

Many studies have been done over many years to try and establish how much fluid the human body needs to avoid dehydration. It has been said that adults should realistically drink 6-8 glasses of water per day but this rather depends on many factors, such as age, amount of physical activity taken and climate. So obviously every person requires a different amount.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure you drink enough liquid to make sure you are never thirsty for long periods of time and of course it is very important to increase your intake during exercise or in hot weather.

What are the Symptoms of Dehydration?

Dehydration can be described as mild, moderate or severe. It all depends on the amount of body weight lost through fluids.

Mild to Moderate Dehydration

Thirst is the first sign of dehydration but there are other symptoms to look out for such as:-

  • Headaches
  • Light headedness or dizziness
  • Dry mouth, lips or eyes
  • Tiredness
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Going to the toilet less than three times a day and passing only a small amount of urine.

You can normally reverse mild to moderate dehydration by drinking more fluids and although it can cause you to feel a bit weak and lethargic, you shouldn't need to see a doctor.

If dehydration does continue and become chronic, it can affect your kidneys and cause kidney stones to develop. It can also cause:-

  • Liver damage
  • Constipation
  • Cholesterol problems
  • Joint and muscle damage

Severe Dehydration

If you do not treat mild to moderate dehydration it can lead to a case of severe dehydration.

Severe dehydration can lead to many complications and you can actually die from it because it can cause the blood to stop circulating. If you reach this level of dehydration it is possible you will be admitted to hospital, so you can be put on a drip to replenish the substantial loss of fluid from your body.

A nasogastric drip may be inserted into the nostril to replace fluids or a saline drip into a vein may be used. This is because it is a faster way to get essential nutrients back into your body.

If you or a child have any of the following symptoms you should contact a doctor as you will need medical help.

  • Unable to urinate, or not passing urine for eight hours
  • Irritability
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry, wrinkled skin that sags slowly into position when pinched up
  • Hypotension (Low blood pressure)
  • A rapid heartbeat
  • A weak pulse
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Seizures/Fits
  • A low level of consciousness
  • Confused or feeling lethargic
  • Blood in your vomit or stools

Contact your doctor or out of hours service straight away if you or your child has diarrhoea that lasts for more than five days or vomiting that lasts for more than 24 hours in adults and 12 hours in a child or if you experience any of the following symptoms:-

  • Confused or feeling lethargic
  • Unable to urinate, or not passing urine for eight hours
  • Dry, wrinkled skin that sags slowly into position when pinched up
  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Hypotension (Low blood pressure)
  • Dry mouth and eyes that can't produce tears

How to Treat Dehydration

Quite simply the best way to hydrate the body is to consume liquids, such as water, semi-skimmed milk, diluted fruit juice or squash.

To replace lost salt have a salty snack and to replace sugar have a sweet drink or snack.

Children and infants who are suffering from dehydration should be given diluted fruit juice, diluted squash or a special rehydration drink instead of just water. This is because if water is the main fluid replacement it can dilute the minerals even more, potentially making the problem worse.

When you are dehydrated you lose salt and sugar from your body, so to bring back the right balance in your body drink a rehydration solution. These contain sodium salts, potassium and glucose or starch and are available from a chemist or by prescription from your doctor.

If you have had bowel surgery some rehydration solutions may not contain enough salt. There are higher-strength solutions available that your doctor will be able to prescribe to you.

Dehydration can be very serious, so if you suspect someone is severely dehydrated, contact a doctor immediately.


Image courtesy of Randy Bayne on Flickr.

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