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Dehydration occurs when your body loses too much fluid. This can happen when you stop drinking water or lose large amounts of fluid through diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, or exercise. Not drinking enough fluids can cause muscle cramps. You may feel faint. Usually your body can reabsorb fluid from your blood and other body tissues. But by the time you become severely dehydrated, you no longer have enough fluid in your body to get blood to your organs, and you may go into shock, which is a life-threatening condition.

Dehydration can occur in anyone of any age, but it is most dangerous for babies, small children, and older adults.

Dehydration in babies and small children

Babies and small children have an increased chance of becoming dehydrated because:

  • A greater portion of their bodies is made of water.
  • Children have a high metabolic rate, so their bodies use more water.
  • A child's kidneys do not conserve water as well as an adult's kidneys.
  • A child's natural defense system that helps fight infection (immune system) is not fully developed, which increases the chance of getting an illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Children often will not drink or eat when they are not feeling well.
  • They depend on their caregivers to provide them with food and fluids.

Dehydration in older adults

Older adults have an increased chance of becoming dehydrated because they may:

  • Not drink because they do not feel as thirsty as younger people.
  • Have kidneys that do not work well.
  • Choose not to drink because of the inability to control their bladders (incontinence).
  • Have physical problems or a disease which makes it:
    • Hard to drink or hold a glass.
    • Painful to get up from a chair.
    • Painful or exhausting to go to the bathroom.
    • Hard to talk or communicate to someone about their symptoms.
  • Take medicines that increase urine output.
  • Not have enough money to adequately feed themselves.

Watch babies, small children, and older adults closely for the early symptoms of dehydration anytime they have illnesses that cause high fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. These are the early symptoms of dehydration:

  • The mouth and eyes may be drier than usual.
  • The urine may be darker than usual.
  • The person may feel cranky, tired, or dizzy.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

In the early stages, you may be able to correct mild to moderate dehydration with home treatment measures. It is important to take action to prevent dehydration.

Adults and children age 12 and older

If you become mildly to moderately dehydrated while working outside or exercising:

  • Stop your activity and rest.
  • Get out of direct sunlight and lie down in a cool spot, such as in the shade or an air-conditioned area.
  • Prop up your feet.
  • Take off any extra clothes.
  • Drink a rehydration drink, water, juice, or sports drink to replace fluids and minerals. Drink 2 qt (2 L) of cool liquids over the next 2 to 4 hours. You should drink at least 10 glasses of liquid a day to replace lost fluids. You can make an inexpensive rehydration drink at home. But do not give this homemade drink to children younger than 12. Measure all ingredients precisely. Small variations can make the drink less effective or even harmful. Mix the following:
    • 1 quart water
    • ½ teaspoon table salt
    • 6 teaspoons sugar

Rest and take it easy for 24 hours, and continue to drink a lot of fluids. Although you will probably start feeling better within just a few hours, it may take as long as a day and a half to completely replace the fluid that you lost.

Newborns and babies younger than 1 year of age

Don't wait until you see signs of dehydration in your baby. These signs include your baby being thirstier than usual and having less urine than usual.

  • If you breast-feed your baby, nurse him or her more often. Offer each breast to your baby for 1 to 2 minutes every 10 minutes.
  • If you use a bottle to feed your baby, increase the number of feedings to make up for lost fluids. The amount of extra fluid your baby needs depends on your baby's age and size. For example, a newborn may need as little as 1 fl oz (30 mL) at each extra feeding, while a 12-month-old baby may need as much as 3 fl oz (90 mL) at each extra feeding.
  • Ask your doctor if you need to use an oral rehydration solution (ORS) if your baby still isn't getting enough fluids from formula or the breast. The amount of ORS your baby needs depends on your baby's age and size. You can give the ORS in a dropper, spoon, or bottle.
  • If your baby has started eating cereal, you may replace lost fluids with cereal. You also may feed your baby strained bananas and mashed potatoes if your child has had these foods before.

Children ages 1 through 11

  • Make sure your child is drinking often. Frequent, small amounts work best.
  • Allow your child to drink as much fluid as he or she wants. Encourage your child to drink extra fluids or suck on flavored ice pops, such as Popsicles. Note: Do not give your child fruit juice or soda pop. Fruit juice and soda pop contain too much sugar and not enough of the essential minerals (electrolytes) that are being lost. Diet soda pop lacks calories that your child needs.
  • Cereal mixed with milk or water may also be used to replace lost fluids.
  • If your child still is not getting enough fluids, you can try an oral rehydration solution (ORS).

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • More serious dehydration develops.
  • Decreased alertness develops.
  • You become dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you might faint when you rise from lying to sitting or from sitting to standing.
  • Decreased urination develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

The following tips may help you prevent dehydration.

  • Drink plenty of water before, while, and after you are active. This is very important when it's hot out and when you do intense exercise. You can drink water or rehydration drinks.
    • Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
    • Take a container of water or sports drink with you when you exercise, and try to drink at least every 15 to 20 minutes.
    • Use a sports drink if you will be exercising for longer than 1 hour.
  • Encourage your child to drink extra fluids or suck on flavored ice pops, such as Popsicles.
  • Avoid high-protein diets. If you are on a high-protein diet, make sure that you drink at least 8 to 12 glasses of water each day.
  • Avoid alcohol, including beer and wine. They increase dehydration and make it hard to make good decisions.
  • Do not take salt tablets. Most people get plenty of salt in their diets. Use a sports drink if you are worried about replacing minerals lost through sweating.
  • Stop working outdoors or exercising if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or very tired.
  • Wear one layer of lightweight, light-colored clothing when you are working or exercising outdoors. Change into dry clothing as soon as you can if your clothes get soaked with sweat. Never exercise in a rubber suit.

Prompt home treatment for diarrhea, vomiting, or fever will help prevent dehydration.

  • Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older
  • Diarrhea, Age 11 and Younger
  • Fever or Chills, Age 12 and Older
  • Fever or Chills, Age 11 and Younger
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 11 and Younger
  • Urinary Problems, Age 11 and Younger
  • Urinary Problems, Age 12 and Older
  • Sunburn
  • Heat-Related Illnesses

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did the dehydration problem start?
  • What activities cause you to feel dehydrated?
  • Have you had a hard time getting enough fluids or holding down fluids because of vomiting, diarrhea, or fever?
  • If vomiting or diarrhea is causing your dehydration, how many episodes have you had in the last 24 hours? When was the last episode of vomiting or diarrhea?
  • Has nausea kept you from taking in enough fluids?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • Have you been using water pills (diuretics) or laxatives?
  • What have you tried so far to help you rehydrate?
  • What activities related to sports or work make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Do you have any health risks?
  • Diarrhea, Age 11 and Younger
  • Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older
  • Fever or Chills, Age 11 and Younger
  • Fever or Chills, Age 12 and Older
  • Heat-Related Illnesses
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 11 and Younger
  • Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older

By: Healthwise Staff Current as of: June 4, 2014
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine

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