Dehydration is a condition that occurs when the loss of body fluids, mostly water, exceeds the amount that is taken in. With dehydration, more water is moving out of our cells and bodies than what we take in through drinking. We lose water every day in the form of water vapor in the breath we exhale and in our excreted sweat, urine, and stool. Along with the water, small amounts of salts are also lost. When we lose too much water, our bodies may become out of balance or dehydrated. Severe dehydration can lead to death.
Causes of Dehydration in Adults
Many conditions may cause rapid and continued fluid losses and lead to dehydration:
- Fever, heat exposure, and too much exercise
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and increased urination due to infection
- Diseases such as diabetes
- The inability to seek appropriate water and food (as in the case of a disabled person)
- An impaired ability to drink (for instance, someone in a coma or on a respirator)
- No access to safe drinking water
- Significant injuries to skin, such as burns or mouth sores, or severe skin diseases or infections (water is lost through the damaged skin)
Symptoms of Dehydration in Adults
The signs and symptoms of dehydration range from minor to severe and include:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth and swollen tongue
- Palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding)
- Sluggishness fainting
- Inability to sweat
- Decreased urine output
Urine color may indicate dehydration. If urine is concentrated and deeply yellow or amber, you may be dehydrated.
When to Seek Medical Care
Call your doctor if the dehydrated person experiences any of the following:
- Increased or constant vomiting for more than a day
- Fever over 101°F
- Diarrhea for more than 2 days
- Weight loss
- Decreased urine production
Dehydration in Adults Treatment - Self-Care at Home
Try to get people who are dehydrated (even those who have been vomiting) to take in fluids in the following ways:
- Sipping small amounts of water (can sip through a straw)
- Drinking carbohydrate/electrolyte-containing drinks. Good choices are sports drinks such as Gatorade or prepared replacement solutions (Pedialyte is one example)
- Sucking on popsicles or ice chips made from juices and sports drinks
Try to cool the person, if there has been heat exposure or if the person has an elevated temperature, in the following ways:
- Remove any excess clothing and loosen other clothing.
- Air-conditioned areas are best for helping return body temperatures to normal and break the heat exposure cycle.
- If air conditioning is not available, increase cooling by evaporation by placing the person near fans or in the shade, if outside. Place a wet towel around the person.
- If available, use a spray bottle or misters to spray lukewarm water on exposed skin surfaces to help with cooling by evaporation.
- Avoid exposing skin to excessive cold, such as ice packs or ice water. This can cause the blood vessels in the skin to constrict and will decrease rather than increase heat loss. Exposure to excessive cold can also cause shivering, which will increase body temperature --the opposite effect you're trying to achieve.
If fever is a cause of dehydration, the use of acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol) or ibuprofen (for example, Advil) may be used. This can be given by mouth if you are not vomiting or as a rectal suppository if you cannot take anything by mouth.
PREVENTION OF DEHYDRATION
The foremost treatment for dehydration is prevention. Anticipate the need for increased fluid intake.
- Plan ahead and take extra water to all outdoor events and work where increased sweating, activity, and heat stress will increase fluid losses. Encourage athletes and outdoor workers to replace fluids at a rate that equals the loss.
- Avoid exercise and exposure during high heat index days. Listen to weather forecasts for high heat stress days, and plan events that must occur outside during times when temperatures are cooler.
- Ensure that older people and infants and children have adequate drinking water or fluids available and assist them as necessary. Make sure that any incapacitated or impaired person is encouraged to drink and provided with adequate fluids.
- Avoid alcohol consumption, especially when it is very warm, because alcohol increases water loss and impairs your ability to sense early signs associated with dehydration.
- Wear light-colored and loose-fitting clothing if you must be outdoors when it is hot outside. Carry a personal fan or mister to cool yourself.
- Break up your exposure to hot temperatures. Find air-conditioned or shady areas and allow yourself to cool between exposures. Taking someone into a cooled area for even a couple of hours each day will help prevent the cumulative effects of high heat exposure.
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