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Beyond thirsty: The dangers of dehydration

Summertime means more time under the sun to exercise, garden, travel, splash, play and just plain chill. It’s also prime time for dehydration. And on warm, humid days, the condition and its side effects can sneak up on you faster than you might think. (Thirsty? That’s a sign you’re already dehydrated.) 

Even mild dehydration can cause problems. And in extreme cases, it can lead to serious organ damage and worse.


What is dehydration, and why is it so dangerous?

Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluid than it takes in. When the normal water content of your body is reduced, it can upset the balance of vital minerals (such as salt and sugar) and keep your body from functioning properly. That’s why it’s a big concern on hot summer days.

It’s no wonder proper hydration is so important. On average, around 60% of the human body is water. Here’s a breakdown of where it’s stored:

  • Bones: 31% water
  • Brain and heart: 73% water
  • Muscles and kidneys: 79% water
  • Skin: 64% water
  • Lungs: 83% water

Dehydration isn’t just a dangerous side effect of hot weather. Along with lost fluids due to increased sweating, other common causes of dehydration include:

  • Severe diarrhea or vomiting. 
  • Fever.
  • Certain medications, including diuretics, antacids, laxatives and blood pressure medication.
  • Frequent urination.

Dehydration is an easy fix, but it can be serious if left unchecked. Severe dehydration can lead to serious complications, including:

  • Electrolyte imbalance.
  • Heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke.
  • Kidney issues, including kidney stones and kidney failure. 
  • Shock, coma and even death.


Who is most at risk for dehydration?

Dehydration can happen to anyone, but some people are at higher risk, including:

  • Infants and toddlers. 
  • People with chronic illnesses. 
  • Outdoor workers.
  • Athletes, particularly runners, cyclists and soccer players.
  • Older adults. 

What are the symptoms of dehydration?

The physical symptoms of dehydration vary based on age.

For adults, signs of dehydration may include:

  • Extreme thirst.
  • Headache, confusion and irritability.
  • Fatigue.
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness and weakness.
  • Rapid heart rate accompanied by low blood pressure.
  • Flushed skin.
  • A loss of appetite (and a craving for sugar).
  • Swelling in the feet.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Chills or intolerance to heat.
  • Constipation.
  • Not peeing or having dark-colored pee.

Symptoms of dehydration in babies or young children include:

  • A lack of tears when crying.
  • Dry mouth, tongue and lips.
  • Sunken eyes.
  • Reduced urine output. (That means fewer than six wet diapers per day for infants and no wet diapers for eight hours for toddlers.)
  • Deep, rapid breathing.
  • Dry, wrinkled skin.
  • Cool, blotchy feet and hands.
  • A sunken soft spot on your infant’s head.

What are the stages of dehydration?

Most healthcare clinicians classify dehydration into three stages: mild, moderate and severe. Here are the symptoms of each:

 Mild. Early symptoms of dehydration include: 

  • Thirst.
  • Darker urine.
  • Decreased urine production.  

Moderate. As the condition progresses to this level, symptoms include 

  • Dry mouth.
  • Lethargy.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Headache.
  • Dizziness.

Severe. At this stage, the body has lost around 10 to 15 percent of its water. Earlier symptoms will likely intensify, and others may include:

  • Lack of sweating.
  • Sunken eyes.
  • Shriveled and dry skin.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Fever.
  • Delirium.
  • Unconsciousness.

How is dehydration treated? 

Treatment for mild dehydration is pretty straight forward: Get out of the heat and drink plenty of liquids. Water is the best option, but you can also replace fluids with electrolytes if you experience significant fluid loss. 

For little ones who become dehydrated from diarrhea, vomiting or fever, an over-the-county oral rehydration solution will help replenish fluids and electrolytes.

Moderate to severe dehydration may require hospitalization for treatment with IV fluids. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to serious complications.

How is dehydration prevented?

The best way to avoid the effects of dehydration is to always keep your body well-hydrated. In other words, stay ahead of your thirst.

How much fluid is enough? Good question. 

Each body’s needs are different and the total fluid intake you need from water, other beverages and food can vary by age, sex, activity level and more. While there’s no hard and fast rule on how much water you should consume each day, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommendation for adequate daily fluid intake is:

  • About 15.5 cups of fluid each day for men.
  • About 11.5 cups of fluids a day for women.

Along with ample water, here are a few other recommendations to keep yourself hydrated:

  • Eat foods with high water content. Fruits and veggies like watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, spinach, tomato and cucumbers provide tons of fluid, along with a dose of vitamins, minerals and fiber. 

  • Drink up, even if you feel crummy. Illness can keep you from drinking regularly. Take tiny sips and gradually drink more.  

  • Side-step the sugary drinks and caffeine. They’re not only less hydrating, but they can prevent your body from absorbing water. Don’t worry, your daily cup of java (or tea) is just fine. Just avoid overdoing the caffeine.

  • Take it easy in the heat. It’s not just about drinking water. It’s also important to take steps to regulate your body temperature when playing or working outdoors:

    • Schedule strenuous physical activities during cooler times of the day.
    • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing and a hat.
    • Take frequent breaks in a cool spot.

Heat + alcohol = a bad summer cocktail

Drinking alcohol increases urination and the excess loss of fluids. When you toss in high summer temps, you’re at increased risk of dehydration and heat-related illness, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

How is dehydration different from heat stroke?

Dehydration and heat stroke are both common heat-related diseases. And they can both be life-threatening conditions if left unchecked.

Heat stroke is the result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures, which can cause you to become dehydrated, prevent you from sweating enough to cool your body and cause your internal thermometer to soar to dangerously high levels. Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat-related illness. It can happen quickly and requires immediate medical treatment. 

The best way to sidestep heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke, is to stay hydrated. With the proper amount of fluid, your body can maintain a normal, consistent temperature.

Learn how to keep cool this summer and avoid heat stroke and its dangerous consequences. 

When should you seek care for dehydration?

 If you have mild to moderate symptoms of dehydration, Indigo Urgent Care can help. Our cool clinicians will evaluate your symptoms and help get you safely back to your summer fun. Simply walk into one of our convenient neighborhood locations or book an appointment online.

If you prefer to have your symptoms checked out from the comfort of your home or wherever your summer adventures take you, Indigo Virtual Care is a great option. 

Whether in person or from your favorite device, we’re here for you 8 am to 8 pm, every day.

Severe dehydration can be serious and life-threatening. If you or a loved one have any of the following symptoms, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room:

  • Fever over 101°
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Fainting
  • Lack of urination
  • Rapid heartbeat or rapid breathing
  • Chest and/or abdominal pain




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