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Dehydration Symptoms, Causes and Tips for Avoiding It: We’ll Drink to That

Fun fact: Summer is HOT in Oklahoma and it’s all too easy to become dehydrated. It’s simple enough to reverse mild, or even moderate dehydration by increasing fluid intake and making sure to drink enough liquids and eat enough hydrating foods daily. 

Something important to understand: Dehydration and thirst are not the same. Thirst is a sensation – your body feels thirsty and you want to drink. In an interview with Self Magazine, Riana R. Pryor, Ph.D., ATC, and director of the Hydration, Exercise, and Thermoregulation (HEAT) Laboratory at the Center for Research and Education in Special Environments in the University of Buffalo explained. “You generally start to feel thirsty when you have lost about 2% of your body weight due to water loss,” she said. “So for instance, if you weigh 160 pounds, you’ll begin to feel thirsty once you lose 3.2 pounds of water.” If you’re thirsty, you’re also dehydrated.

Dehydration is a physiological condition that can be measured. Your body is depleted – you don’t have enough fluid for your cells to operate optimally. Thirst is a sure indicator of dehydration, but as we know, by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already mildly dehydrated, so it’s a good idea to understand how much water you need and make a plan to ensure you drink it before you feel thirsty. 

What is optimal hydration? Though each person is slightly different when it comes to how much water they should drink each day, a good place to start is with this simple formula: multiply your weight by 67 percent (or 2/3). For example, a person who weighs 149 pounds should be taking in about 99 ounces of water per day. Less than 64 ounces per day is generally too little; if your urine is as clear as water, you’re drinking too much. While we all need to drink plenty of water, some people need a little more and some people need a bit less.

Don’t panic. Yes, 99 ounces sounds like a lot. So does 64. Pro tip: it doesn’t have to all be in liquid form! Many foods contain surprisingly large amounts of water. A cup of watermelon contains about half a cup of water; cucumbers are 95 percent water; an orange contains half a cup; soups and broths are water-content superstars as are tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini and radishes.  

Besides thirst, here are some other signs of dehydration to watch out for in adults:

Dark urine. If you’re well-hydrated, your urine should be pale yellow, the color of straw, or so pale it’s close to clear. Dark yellow or amber colored urine indicates dehydration. If your urine is the color of syrup or dark beer, drink water immediately – you’ve crossed into alarming territory. Conversely, if your urine is completely transparent, like water, you might be overhydrated. 

Less urine. If you notice you’re heading for the bathroom less frequently and/or you’re peeing less when you go, that’s a good indicator of dehydration.

Fatigue, dizziness, confusion. When you’re dehydrated, you’ve got less water in your body which translates into lower blood volume (blood is about 90 percent water). Blood can’t reach your brain properly, nor can it carry as much oxygen. This can cause confusion, dizziness and fatigue. Your blood pressure can also drop, making those symptoms more pronounced. 

Infants and young children experiencing dehydration may have these symptoms:

  • Crying – but with few or no tears
  • Listlessness
  • Dry tongue and mouth
  • No wet diapers for three hours
  • Irritability
  • Sunken soft spot on the top of the skull (fontanel)
  • Sunken cheeks

Some factors that may affect how much water you need on a given day:

Medications and overall health. You may be surprised to know that people with conditions like heart, liver or kidney problems or thyroid diseases must take care not to drink too much water. Other medications can cause people to retain water, like opiate pain medications and some antidepressants.

How much and how vigorously you exercise. The more – and more vigorously – you exercise, the more you sweat. Especially when it’s hot or humid. Replenishing fluids after a sweaty workout makes sense, but it’s also a good idea to prehydrate before you exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine’s hydration guide recommends drinking a little more than two cups (17 ounces), two hours before your workout. All told, you want to be able to replace more than you lose, according to Pryor, between 100 to 150 percent of the fluid loss. To figure out how much water you lose during exercise, weigh yourself before and after. Multiply the number of pounds lost by 16 to get the number of ounces you’ll want to replace.

The weather. While you’re particularly at risk for dehydration in hotter months because you sweat more, cooler months present their own challenge. When it’s hot outside, a nice cold glass of water sounds terrific, but when it’s cool or cold, not so much. In either season, you can supplement your fluid intake with hydrating foods. Think soup in the winter and melon, cucumbers and the like in the summer.

Dehydration is categorized in three levels:

Mild. Likely symptoms include dry mouth, tiredness, light-headedness and thirst. Treatment is to drink more fluids. Drink water and add a drink containing electrolytes such as coconut water, Gatorade, Pedialyte, electrolyte infused water or plant-based milks. 

Moderate. Symptoms are similar to those of mild dehydration, along with headache, constipation, swollen feet and loss of appetite. To rebound from moderate dehydration, you’ll need to visit an urgent care, hospital or emergency room where you will be given intravenous (IV) hydration.

Severe. Symptoms can include a rapid pulse, a weak pulse, a low degree of consciousness, not urinating for eight hours, feeling confused, seizures and something called hypovolemic shock (low blood volume shock) which is when low blood volume causes a drop in the amount of oxygen in your body.

Causes of dehydration can include:

Not drinking enough. It’s easy to forget about taking in enough fluids, especially when you’re busy. 

You’re a sweaty Betty. Some people perspire, or delicately glow. Other people sweat like lumberjacks. If you’re in the latter group, you’ve got to be extra mindful about drinking enough water. Even your dainty sweaters need to keep an eye on hydration when it’s hot outside, humid or when you’re exercising. 
Increased urination. Causes of increased urination can be uncontrolled (or undiagnosed) diabetes.

Diarrhea and/or vomiting. Sudden-onset or acute diarrhea can cause a significant loss of fluids and electrolytes very quickly. Vomiting can, too. When someone is experiencing both at the same time, the risk of dehydration increases exponentially.

Fever.  A low fever is less likely to cause dehydration than a higher fever. More problematic is when someone experiences a high fever plus diarrhea and vomiting. 

For more health and lifestyle content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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