What is dehydration and what causes it?
Dehydration is actually an umbrella term to describe a constellation of symptoms caused by the loss of body fluid, says Erkeda DeRouen, MD, a family, lifestyle, and diversity medicine physician and the CEO of The Pace Makerz and Erkeda DeRouen Enterprise. She says that dehydration can be problematic—and can even dangerous—because water is essential for sustaining our life.
“The body needs water to do things like help your muscles move, cushion your joints, assist your organs in working properly, move your bowels, flush out waste via your kidneys, and even keep your body temperature normal,” explains Dr. DeRouen. “When the body doesn’t have enough water, it does not function as well.”
Although we often think of dehydration occurring only in instances where we sweat a lot—like when exercising on a hot day—Dr. DeRouen says that there are a variety of causes of dehydration because we lose body water through a number of different physiological processes.
“We typically lose water throughout the day through sweating, urine, stool, vomiting, and even crying,” she says. “Sometimes, we lose too much when there is a change in the way that the body functions, especially when you are not feeling well. [For example], if you catch your child’s stomach bug, you may lose much more fluid through vomiting, diarrhea, and fever than normal.” You also have to keep an eye on certain foods and drinks that are diuretics or that can cause diarrhea.
What are the stages of dehydration?
Dr. DeRouen says that there are several stages of dehydration. Sometimes, these are labeled based on the primary symptoms, but Dr. DeRouen says that it is more practical from a clinical perspective to classify the dehydration stages based on severity. In this model, there are three stages of dehydration: mild, moderate, and severe.
Stage 1: Mild dehydration
“Common signs and symptoms of mild dehydration include thirst, chapped lips, and urine that is a little darker than normal,” says Dr. DeRouen.
If you notice that you're not feeling so great on a hot day or while exercising, go ahead and start taking in more water. "When you start to develop symptoms, you are behind the curve,” Dr. DeRouen warns. She also suggests eating fruits and veggies that naturally have lots of water, like watermelon and cucumbers.
Stage 2: Moderate dehydration
Dr. DeRouen says that the symptoms of dehydration become more obvious when dehydration advances to the moderate stage.
“You’ll likely have the same symptoms as stage one, but more severe. You may develop cramps in the kidney area, rapid heart rate, feel tired, experience dizziness, and headaches,” she explains. “You may note that your capillary refill is delayed, meaning when you press on your unpolished nail for a few seconds until it blanches to white, it will take more than three seconds to fill back up and return to your normal nail color. This shows that your circulation is decreasing and flow is not getting to your tissues as swiftly as it should.”
At this point, keep an eye on your symptoms and do whatever you can to hydrate, says Dr. DeRouen.
Stage 3: Severe dehydration
If moderate dehydration is not reversed with swift, effective, and sufficient rehydration, it will advance to the severe stage.
“Significantly-worsening symptoms in the severe stage can include intense thirst, little-to-no urine production, a rapid heartbeat (or, inversely, a slow pulse), rapid breathing/shortness of breath, low blood pressure, confusion, irritability, and even loss of consciousness,” says Dr. DeRouen. At this point, she adds, if at-home rehydration efforts aren’t working, you will need to go seek emergency medical care.
“If you experience dizziness, intractable vomiting/diarrhea, decreased urination for over 12 hours, confusion, or extreme fatigue, please go to the emergency room,” urges Dr. DeRouen. “You may need IV fluids, which contain water as well as some electrolytes. They can also investigate other potential causes of the dehydration/fluid loss if you cannot clearly pinpoint it.”
How to rehydrate fast
According to Dr. DeRouen, the best way to rehydrate quickly depends on the severity of your dehydration. She says that if your levels are mild or moderate, you should be able to rehydrate at home by drinking water, and water with electrolytes, if possible (since electrolytes help your body absorb fluids).
“Oral rehydration therapy, which usually consists of water containing sodium and potassium, may also be added,” says Dr. DeRouen. “If you notice that your dehydration is advancing, not responding, or you have lost almost 10 percent of your body weight, you will likely need more observation in person and intravenous interventions.” Meaning: It's time to head to the ER.
Tips for staying hydrated
Although we all intuitively know that we should drink plenty of water throughout the day, the reality is that many of us find it difficult to actually do that. Dr. DeRouen shares some tips that might help you this summer:
- Drink a full glass of water right when you wake up.
- Add fruit to your water to create variety in the taste and to decrease the urge to drink sugary drinks.
- Set an alarm to drink some water every hour.
- Get a snazzy water bottle. “There are some that alert you when it’s time to drink up to a certain amount,” says Dr. DeRouen. “There are others that have flavor disks, which allow you to use your sense of smell to trick your mind into thinking that your water is flavored.”
- Get a water filter to improve the purity or flavor of plain water.
- If you want to drink bottled water, try a few different brands until you find one you like—the bottle and the preparation can affect the taste.
Experiment with a few different strategies to find what works to keep you drinking. “Not only will it prevent dehydration, but it will make you feel like your best self,” says Dr. DeRouen. “People that are well hydrated have fewer wrinkles, have more exercise stamina, and better overall health. Stay well with water!”
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