Dehydration: Test the water

by Karen Bowen

Traveling down the road in the hot summer, you may notice dry, brown patches of grass in the median – spots that haven’t had enough rain. Just like the earth, your body can dry up if it doesn’t get the water it needs to grow, repair and keep your systems functioning properly.

Even if you do try to maintain your fluid levels, circumstances may cause you to use or lose more fluid than you ingest, leading to dehydration. Perhaps you don’t drink enough water in hot weather, or are experiencing: ongoing diarrhea; excessive vomiting; prolonged fever; excessive sweating; and/or heavy sweating. Unmanaged, these conditions could lead to serious health problems.

If you become mildly to moderately dehydrated, you may experience: thirst; sticky, dry mouth and skin; lethargy; dizziness or lightheadedness; headache; reduced urine output; and/or constipation.

If dehydration becomes more severe – a medical emergency, you may experience these more noticeable symptoms: extreme thirst; dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes; less elastic, shriveled skin that does not quickly regain shape when pinched into a fold; sunken eyes; low blood pressure; rapid heartbeat and breathing; and/or fever. In very serious cases, you may become delusional, lose consciousness, or die.

Doesn’t it seem strange that someone could even become dehydrated? Why not just drink enough to replenish your water supply?

Many times, you may not even feel thirsty until you are already dehydrated. Or, you may have emptied your water bottle a few miles back and are waiting for a convenient stop to replenish your supply. Or, perhaps you do feel thirsty, but are just too busy or on too tight a schedule to bother stopping for a drink.

Or, you may have a related health concern. Diarrhea and vomiting, especially when severe and acute, can cause a huge loss of water and electrolytes in a very short period of time. Fever, particularly a high fever, also burns off a lot of fluid while trying to cool your body through evaporation. Excessive sweating and increased urination caused by undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes and certain diuretics and blood pressure medication, may also lead to dehydration.

As well, specific groups of people run a higher risk of becoming dehydrated, including older adults, people with chronic illnesses, endurance athletes, and people who live and work in hot environments. As an older adult, your less-efficient body becomes less able to conserve water and adapt to temperature changes. In addition, medications may impact body fluid levels.

Chronic illnesses also lead to higher risk. Uncontrolled or untreated diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and/or other chronic illnesses, all make you more susceptible. Even a sore throat or cold with fever can impact hydration levels.

Physical activity in hot, humid conditions easily causes dehydration. Prolonged work or exercise may make you lose more water than your cells are capable of absorbing quickly. Every active hour increases your fluid debt, which may cause a cumulative (and dangerous) deficit over time. Even moderate exercise can affect you; so, consciously hydrate in your downtime. Remember, in humid air, your sweat doesn’t evaporate and cool your skin surface as quickly as usual, so extra fluids are required to regulate your body temperature.

Avoid the following serious conditions, by maintaining your water levels. Heat injury, ranging from mild heat cramps to heat exhaustion, or even heatstroke, which is sometimes fatal. Swelling of the brain, which sometimes occurs while rehydrating after becoming dehydrated.

When your water-starved body overreacts to a fresh water supply, thirsty cells can swell and burst trying to draw in too much water too quickly. This can devastate brain cells. Seizures, caused by electrolyte imbalances that disrupt electrical signals between nerve cells. Low blood pressure, resulting from low blood volume, which decreases oxygen levels throughout your body, can be fatal. Kidney failure, which prevents kidneys from filtering impurities and waste from the blood. And finally, coma and death, if severe dehydration remains untreated.

Mild to moderate dehydration can easily be reversed. Simply increase your fluid intake, drink plenty of water or sports drinks, and eat foods high in water such as fruits and vegetables. When sick, or exercising or working in the heat, drink even when you don’t feel thirsty. Plan ahead; start hydrating a day ahead of physical activities. Then, just before exercising or working, drink one to three cups of water. During the activity, keep drinking, and drink more after you’re done.

Since thirst may not necessarily warn of low hydration levels, monitor your urine colour, as well. Light-coloured or clear urine shows you are well hydrated. However, amber or dark-coloured urine may indicate dehydration. The darkness of the urine usually parallels the severity of dehydration. Be aware that severe dehydration requires immediate medical intervention!

Don’t leave your body high and dry. On every trip, remember to keep a few water bottles on hand.


Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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