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Dehydration

Definition

Dehydration occurs when your body does not have as much water and fluids as it should.

Dehydration can be mild, moderate, or severe, based on how much of your body's fluid is lost or not replaced. Severe dehydration is a life-threatening emergency.

Causes

You can become dehydrated if you lose too much fluid, don't drink enough water or fluids, or both.

Your body may lose a lot of fluid from:

  • Sweating too much, for example, from exercising in hot weather
  • Fever
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Urinating too much (uncontrolled diabetes or some medications, like diuretics, can cause you to urinate a lot)

You might not drink enough fluids because:

  • You don't feel like eating or drinking because you are sick
  • You are nauseated
  • You have a sore throat or mouth sores

Older adults and people with certain diseases, such as diabetes, are also at higher risk for dehydration.

Symptoms

Signs of mild to moderate dehydration:

  • Thirst
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Not urinating much
  • Darker yellow urine
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps

Signs of severe dehydration:

  • Not urinating, or very dark yellow or amber-colored urine
  • Dry, shriveled skin
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Breathing rapidly
  • Sunken eyes
  • Listlessness
  • Shock (lack of blood flow through the body)
  • Unconsciousness or delirium

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will look for these signs of dehydration:

Your doctor may do lab tests:

Treatment

To treat dehydration:

  • Try sipping water or sucking on ice cubes.
  • Try drinking water or sports drinks that contain electrolytes.
  • Do not take salt tablets. They can cause a serious complication.
  • Learn what to eat if you have diarrhea.

For more severe dehydration or heat emergency, you may need to stay in a hospital and receive fluid through a vein (IV). Your health care provider will also treat the cause of the dehydration.

Dehydration caused by a stomach virus should get better on its own after a few days.

Outlook (Prognosis)

If you notice signs of dehydration and treat it quickly, you should recover completely.

Possible Complications

If untreated, severe dehydration may cause:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

You should call 911 if:

  • The person loses consciousness at any time.
  • There is any other change in the person's alertness (for example, confusion or seizures).
  • The person has a fever over 102 °F.
  • You notice symptoms of heatstroke (like rapid pulse or rapid breathing).
  • The person's condition does not improve or gets worse despite treatment.

Prevention

  • Drink plenty of fluids every day, even when you are well. Drink more when the weather is hot or you are exercising.
  • If anyone in your family is ill, pay attention to how much they are able to drink. Pay close attention to children and older adults.
  • Anyone with a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea should drink plenty of fluids. DO NOT wait for signs of dehydration.
  • If you think you or someone in your family may become dehydrated, call your health care provider. Do this before the person becomes dehydrated.

References

Chen L. Infectious diarrheal diseases and dehydration. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 171.

Greenbaum LA. Deficit therapy. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 54.

Santillanes G. Claudius I. Rehydration Techniques in Infants and Children. In: Roberts: Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2013:chap 19.


Review Date: 8/22/2013
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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