Dehydration is the expression of a lack of water in the body: either the water losses are abnormally high (fever, heatwave, vomiting, diarrhea, intense activity, an overdose of diuretics, diabetes, etc.) or the person concerned has simply forgotten to drink water (insufficient intake). Whatever the cause, dehydration can have serious consequences if it is not quickly corrected. It can even lead to coma or even death.
This article will discuss the symptoms, treatments, and the best ways to prevent dehydration.
What is dehydration?
Dehydration is an imbalance between the consumption of water and the loss of it. It is not only the water in the body that’s disturbed. Very often electrolytes are also affected, especially when we sweat (due to fever, intense activity, heat waves, etc.), vomit, or have diarrhea, all of which will result in the loss of water and minerals, such as sodium and potassium.
Additionally, dehydration is sometimes called “sunstroke” when it’s caused by prolonged exposure to the sun or when the warm surrounding atmosphere is involved (car without air conditioning, room under the attic, etc.). But the result is the same.
How common is dehydration?
Everyone suffers from dehydration several times in their life, mostly from moderate dehydration, which is quickly corrected by sufficient water intake.
The following are the most frequently affected:
- Children, especially when they have a fever or are constantly exposed to the sun;
- Elderly people in case of heatstroke
- Summer sportsmen and women who poorly compensate for their water losses
- And travelers of all ages who travel to certain countries. Tourist diarrhea, also known as “travel diarrhea,” is of infectious origin, mainly bacterial (Escherichia coli, shigella, salmonella, E-coli, etc.) and causes considerable dehydration that must be compensated for. According to an international survey of more than 700,000 tourists, it affects up to 60% of visitors to developing countries, with Kenya and India breaking all records!
Thirst occurs when certain nerve receptors in the hypothalamus – a very important structure in the brain – are alerted by excess blood concentration. This is a sign that you’re already dehydrated, and it’s a sign that should be taken very seriously. Thus, if you’ve ever been thirsty, you have been dehydrated!
What are the symptoms of dehydration?
At first, it can be a simple thirst. But as babies are not able to express themselves in any other way than by crying – not always well interpreted! – and older people no longer feel thirsty, there’s a great danger of missing something, allowing the dehydration to progress. In this case, there are other warning signs…
If dehydration is not corrected quickly, the feeling of thirst becomes intense, production of sweat and urine decreases (highly concentrated urine should attract attention), and other symptoms, such as fever (sometimes high), increased pulse rate, headaches, dizziness due to drop in blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting appear. If there’s no rehydration, dehydration can quickly become a concern. This is because brain cells are particularly sensitive to dehydration, which can result in confusion, convulsions, and altered consciousness.
There are also symptoms of the diseases that have caused dehydration: For example, if you’re a tourist, diarrhea and abdominal pain are common. A child’s illness can be fever followed by a rash, etc.
What are the risk factors for dehydration?
Babies and seniors are the most vulnerable because of the following reasons:
- Babies are particularly affected because their body is 70% water and has very few reserves. As their immune system is immature, they’re also susceptible to childhood diseases, usually accompanied by fever, even diarrhea, and vomiting, all of which encourage water loss.
- In addition to the fact that the elderly no longer feel thirsty, certain common diseases, such as diabetes and the use of diuretics (usually to combat high blood pressure), can cause dehydration or at least make it worse.
How is dehydration diagnosed?
A favorable context (heatwaves, sunbathing, etc.) and symptoms indicating dehydration, such as fever and disturbed consciousness, should be considered as dehydration that requires urgent treatment until proven otherwise.
Who should be consulted? If the sick person is fully conscious, they should consult their family doctor or pediatrician as soon as possible. If there are already severe problems, the emergency services should be called at 911
Besides weighing to evaluate the babies’ water loss, there’s little need for minor dehydration situations, which are quickly remedied by drinking water and electrolytes. However, if the child is hospitalized for dehydration, a blood test is required to determine the level of electrolytes in the blood. Other complementary tests may also be useful to understand the cause of dehydration…
Can dehydration be avoided?
In all situations where there is a risk of dehydration – heatwaves, warm weather sports, outbreaks of fever, trip to a country with questionable hygiene, etc. – dehydration can be prevented. It’s possible and even highly recommended to concentrate on prevention!
DURING A SPORTING EVENT
It’s important to rehydrate before, during, and after the session. If it’s hot during the day, it’s better to be active “in the cold.” Take a slice of an orange squeezed with water and salt, at a rate of 1 to 2 grams per liter. This is enough to avoid dehydration if you play sports as an amateur.
For more strenuous sports activities, there’s a solution in ready-to-drink sports drinks. Take note that you must be careful when consuming caffeine and alcohol since both promote dehydration.
IN CASE OF A HEATWAVE
You should give a drink – preferably mineral water with low mineral content – about every 20 minutes to an infant because their kidneys are still immature. For a senior, give them mineral water or vegetable broth.
Both infant and senior should stay in a cool room (turn the AC on or use a fan). Wear a simple, loose, light cotton t-shirt. Cool yourself several times a day with a mist spray, a damp glove, or a shower, but don’t dry yourself afterward. And don’t go out during the hottest hours of the day.
WHEN TRAVELLING ABROAD
In order to limit the risk of contamination, it’s advisable to follow the rule “cook, boil, peel or forget.” In other words, you can only drink bottled water. If there’s no bottled water, you can drink water that has been boiled for a long time (tea, coffee). Ice cubes, ice cream, and milk reconstituted from powder should be avoided since it’s close to impossible to know which water has been used.
Unpasteurized raw milk, butter, minced meat sauces, such as mayonnaise (based on raw eggs), shellfish, seafood, and raw fish are also not recommended. If you would like to try fruits, you should only eat fruits purchased from trusted sources. In fact, some unscrupulous sellers inject water into their fruits to make it heavier! Peel them yourself after carefully washing your hands.
And whether you eat in a large restaurant or in a street stand, the specialists in tropical diseases would advise you to avoid cold dishes, especially if they’re served on crushed ice. Eat only hot dishes (no raw vegetables).
When you are back in your room, remember to disinfect your tap water before brushing your teeth. You should also avoid swallowing water in the shower.
It’s not recommended to take antibiotics as a preventive measure, except for elderly people, for people with heart or immune deficiency (to be discussed with the doctor). Start on the first day of the trip, continue throughout the stay, and again two days after returning home.
What are the main treatments for dehydration?
A person can be rehydrated, either orally if dehydration is minor and the patient is still conscious, or by intravenous infusion, if they’re not.
To compensate for the loss of water and electrolytes:
Once an abnormal loss of water is noted (due to fever, vomiting, or diarrhea), the most important step is rehydration. It’s much better if rehydration solutions can be taken otherwise. As an alternative, mix 6 teaspoons of sugar and one teaspoon of salt in a liter of drinking water or drink cola.
In case of loss of consciousness:
Call emergency services by dialing 911. While waiting for their arrival, move the dehydrated person in the shade or to a cool room. If you cannot wake them up, lay them on their side while watching their breathing.
This position prevents them from choking on the tongue and prevents food from entering the bronchi if they vomit again. To do this correctly, place the person on their side with their mouth open. Check if that person is breathing normally while waiting for help. As soon as they arrive, the paramedics will start rehydration.