By Ray Foucher
Why would you be worried about the symptoms of severe dehydration? How likely is that? I chose that heading because most any dehydration is more serious than you might think. Most people are somewhat dehydrated all the time—a chronic condition they are probably not even aware of and that can lead to serious consequences.
Of course, there are levels of dehydration just like other conditions. The point is to be aware of the symptoms of even the beginnings of dehydration. Then severe dehydration need not be a danger—as long as you do something about it.
And it is not as simple as adding a litre of oil to your car’s engine when it is down. It’s not just a case of topping up and all is fine. Your body is composed of trillions of cells and comes with several mechanisms to conserve and recycle water. If you are chronically dehydrated your body will have become adapted to run at a sub-optimum level in strict water- conservation mode. You will still be alive and functioning but not optimally. Start taking in adequate amounts of water and it will take time for your body to adjust to the improved supply. But, over time, it will and you will benefit with less pain and better health in many ways.
Chronic dehydration is actually a major, underlying cause of many common ailments. The symptoms of chronic dehydration may manifest as a variety of seemingly-unrelated problems. Unless you are aware of it you may not even realize that the condition that is bothering you may, in many cases, be related to chronic dehydration.
For example, allergies and asthma can be symptoms of dehydration. Lack of water increases histamine levels, causing the release of the stress hormone cortisol which suppresses white blood cell production, increasing vulnerability to allergens.
Chronic dehydration may contribute to premature aging, elevated blood pressure, depression, diverticulitis, eczema, fatigue, heartburn, joint pain, kidney stones, obesity (many people confuse the thirst sensation with hunger), rheumatoid pain and urinary infections.
There are many other benefits to drinking enough water in addition to simply avoiding dehydration.
Some symptoms that might be seen in a person with serious dehydration include: blood pressure decreased, breathing becomes more rapid, constipation, delirium or unconsciousness, dizziness or lightheadedness, eyes become sunken, fever, fontanels (soft spots on top of a baby’s head) become shrunken, headaches, irritability and confusion for adults, mouth and mucous membranes become very dry, pulse increases, skin shriveled and dry, sleepiness (with fussiness) in infants and children, sweating ceases, tears cannot be produced, thirst is extreme, urination decreases (none for three hours for infants and eight hours or more for older children) and any urine is very dark yellow.
Unfortunately, you don’t come with a dehydration gauge. Thirst is not a reliable gauge of your need for water, especially in children and older adults. And if people normally do not get enough water, their perception of the sensation of thirst may be dulled or misinterpreted.
A better indicator is urine colour. Clear or light-colored urine means good hydration; dark yellow usually indicates dehydration. The exception can be first thing in the morning—if a person has not voided all night it is normal to have darker urine.
So if a person has some of these symptoms how do you know if it is dehydration and not another cause? Common sense and knowledge of the person and conditions will tell you something.
Conditions that can Contribute
The simple cause of dehydration in many cases is just not taking in enough water to replace what is lost and to maintain optimum water levels.
Other factors that may contribute to dehydration include: Altitude especially above about 2,500 meters due to increased urination and more rapid breathing. Coffee and alcohol are dehydrating in addition to their other harmful effects. Diarrhea and vomiting can cause a great loss of water (and electrolytes) in a short time. Exercise not just from the obvious sweating but also the increased respiration rate causes more fluid loss. Fever with the rate of dehydration increasing as fever increases. Medications such as diuretics, antihistamines, blood pressure medications and some psychiatric drugs can contribute to dehydration, often by causing increased urination or perspiration. Sweating excessively especially in hot, humid weather. Cold winter weather can cause drying perhaps more slowly but also less perceptibly. Increased urination from uncontrolled diabetes or other medical conditions.
Children and infants are more at risk because they are not as aware of the risk or the need to drink fluids. Older adults can also be at increased risk because of reduced ability to conserve water, less acute sensation of thirst, forgetting to drink, neglect by caregivers etc.
If you’re a healthy adult, you can usually treat mild to moderate dehydration by drinking more fluids, such as water or a sports drink. Do not use soft drinks, alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.
Get immediate medical care if you develop severe signs and symptoms such as extreme thirst, a lack of urination, shriveled skin, dizziness and confusion. Now that the hot weather is over there is less danger of dehydration but perhaps also less awareness.