Studies show that over 75% of Americans suffer from chronic dehydration, which is close to 246 million people.
Monitoring for dehydration signs and symptoms as soon as possible is key to proper dehydration treatment and can help prevent a more serious, life-threatening case.
There are several common signs of dehydration to look out for, with some being more obvious than others. It’s important to know that if dehydration becomes more severe, it can lead to signs of mental and physical decline that will need immediate action for reversal. If symptoms of severe dehydration are concerning enough, they may also require the assistance of a medical professional.
1. Not Urinating or Very Dark Urine
An easy way to test and see if you’re dehydrated is by checking the color of your urine. Normal urine should be pale yellow, like lemonade. If your urine is a darker color, similar to apple juice, this could be a sign of moderate to severe dehydration.
If you’re not urinating at all, you’re most likely severely dehydrated. This requires immediate medical attention.
What to do: If you find your urine is dark yellow, start drinking more water immediately. It’s best to take small sips of water your body can adequately absorb.
If you feel you’re not getting enough fluids regularly, consider taking a large water bottle with you to drink throughout the day—at work, in the car and on the go.
2. Dry Skin That Doesn’t Bounce Back When Pinched
Checking the color of your urine is not the only quick test you can perform to determine if you’re dehydrated. A person’s skin elasticity is also telling.
Try this test: Pinch the skin on the top of your hand and see what happens. If it moves back slowly, this is an indication that you’re mild to moderately dehydrated. If the skin seems to stick together (i.e., it “tents”), this is a sign of a severe case of dehydration.
What to do: Just like with darker urine, you should increase your water intake and drink fluids if you’re experiencing mild to moderate dehydration. A glass of water is typically a good “go-to,” but if you’ve just finished a strenuous workout a sports drink or coconut water may be more effective in replenishing fluids and electrolytes.
If you are severely dehydrated and your skin tents, you may have to visit a healthcare provider who can help treat dehydration.
3. Rapid Heartbeat and Breathing
It’s natural to have an increased heart rate and rapid breathing while exercising. But if your symptoms don’t go away once you’ve cooled down or you haven’t been working out, and you experience these symptoms, it could be a sign of a severe case of dehydration. This is because depleted amounts of electrolytes can affect the heart’s ability to pump blood.
What to do: Fluid intake is crucial for organs like your heart, liver, kidneys and lungs to function properly. Therefore, you must visit a doctor to assess for dehydration if you experience these symptoms.
After a thorough examination, if a medical professional determines you are dehydrated, you’ll likely be hooked up to receive intravenous fluid containing a concentrated rehydration solution. This water features salts and sugars like sodium chloride and potassium for quick delivery of fluids to the parts of your body that need it most.
4. Dizziness or Lightheadedness
Did you know that your brain is approximately 75% water? That’s why drinking water and eating water-filled foods can help your brain work better.
On the flip side, if you don’t get enough fluids, it can negatively affect your brain function. For example, if you are experiencing dizziness or lightheadedness or feel as if you may pass out, this may mean you are severely dehydrated.
What to do: Don’t take symptoms like these lightly. Properly rehydrate by slowing drinking water and eating fruits and vegetables with high water content.
These include cucumbers, watermelon, tomatoes, strawberries, apples and grapes. This will help replenish your body with the minerals and electrolytes it needs to absorb into the brain and tissues.
However, if you’re experiencing severe dizziness or lightheadedness, you should go to the emergency room as soon as possible to be checked out by a healthcare provider.
5. Fever and Chills
We typically associate a fever and chills with an illness like the flu or another virus. But don’t let this warning sign fool you. It’s also a dangerous sign of severe dehydration. When your body doesn’t have enough fluids, it’s hard to maintain a regular body temperature, and this can lead to hyperthermia and fever-like symptoms, including chills.
What to do: If this occurs during physical activity or while playing sports, stop what you’re doing immediately. The stress you’re placing on your body and its systems can worsen your symptoms.
To treat dehydration at home, drink more fluids and either apply a cold compress to your face or take an ice bath to cool down. If your temperature doesn’t improve or it reaches above 103°, go to the nearest emergency room or urgent care center.
This may indicate a more severe case of dehydration in adults and requires immediate medical attention.
Unconsciousness from dehydration can result from low blood pressure or dizziness. When accompanied by other dehydration signs, this could be indicative of severe fluid loss.
If you or someone you know is feeling lightheaded or hot due to a high body temperature, they might be on the brink of passing out. Unconsciousness is a red flag that your body is in dire need of water.
What to do: Call 911 immediately if you’re around someone who passes out, or if you’re alone and feel like you may pass out. This requires transportation to the emergency room right away for dehydration treatment.
Like with other serious signs of dehydration, you or the person affected will most likely receive rehydration therapy. You’ll be monitored by doctors to ensure you’re stable and your fluid levels have returned to normal before you’re released.
Dehydration can also lead to confusion and difficulty concentrating. If you have trouble focusing or organizing your thoughts clearly, dehydration may be a triggering factor. Losing body water can lead to confusion and disorientation and signify severe dehydration.
What to do: If you lose focus, try drinking a glass of water. If confusion starts worsening or you become disoriented, seek immediate medical attention.
Another classic sign of dehydration is fatigue. This fatigue can occur for several reasons, but one of the main reasons may be that dehydration negatively impacts sleep. Studies have shown those who sleep less tend to be more dehydrated and those who were well hydrated slept longer on average.
Fatigue can affect your everyday life, making it feel harder to get through the workday or a challenging workout.
What to do: If you feel yourself frequently tiring out shortly into your workouts or feeling fatigued regularly, it’s likely a good time to evaluate your water intake. Call your doctor or local urgent care if you experience extreme fatigue that affects your everyday life.
9. Sunken Eyes or Dry Eyes
While perhaps not as obvious, having dry or sunken eyes are also a classic symptom of dehydration. This is because less fluid and tears are circulating, leading to dryness in the eyes.
In these cases, your eyes can burn. It may even feel like you have sand in your eyes, or they may become more sensitive to light.
What to do: If any of these symptoms occur, drinking water may help.
10. White Tongue
Dehydration can also cause a physical symptom called the white tongue. This appears as a white coating on the tongue's surface caused by debris, bacteria and dead cells that become lodged and inflamed. This can occur for many reasons, but the primary causes are dehydration and dry mouth.
What to do: While a white tongue is generally harmless, it can be an underlying sign that you’re dehydrated. Drink plenty of water and brush your tongue gently with a toothbrush. If it doesn’t go away in a few weeks, it’s a good idea to call a doctor.
If you’re experiencing any of these signs, it’s essential to check your water intake. It’s also important to understand what dehydration actually is and what happens to your body when it dehydrates.
Causes of Dehydration
There are several possible causes of dehydration, typically either due to not drinking enough fluids or from losing bodily fluids:
- Inadequate fluid intake - If you’re not drinking enough water or water-containing foods like fruits and vegetables, it’s easier to become dehydrated.
- Diarrhea and vomiting - Both of these symptoms cause fluid loss, which can result in dehydration.
- Excessive sweating - This can result from strenuous or endurance physical activity or exposure to hot weather conditions.
- Increased urination - This can occur if you have diabetes or certain medications that can cause you to urinate more and lose fluid, such as diuretics or blood pressure medications.
- Fever - Having a fever alone dehydrates you. This is because an increase in body temperature increases your metabolism and your breathing rate, leading you to breathe out more moisture.
Ways of Preventing Dehydration
These tips can help you prevent dehydration to begin with, which is easier than having to treat it after it already happened.
- Keep a water bottle by your side and keep it in your line of sight.
- Add natural ingredients to your water, like fresh strawberries, cucumbers and orange or lemon slices. Seltzer waters are a great option to choose from as well.
- Eat more water-filled fruit and vegetables. In fact, cantaloupe, watermelon, leafy greens and tomatoes all contain 90% water!
- Drink electrolytes or coconut water post-workout.
- Avoid alcohol consumption if you’re already feeling dehydrated as this increases your fluid loss.
Visit Your GoHealth Urgent Care Today
When you’re severely dehydrated, your gut reaction may be to chug fluids or water-filled foods into the body as quickly as possible. However, you don’t want to overdo it. It’s possible to drink too much water, resulting in a condition called hyponatremia. This is when sodium and electrolytes in the blood are so low that they can be life-threatening.
As Dr. Ben Stein of GoHealth Urgent Care stated, “Some patients are just overcompensating based on the information they’ve heard.” But this can result in more harm than good. Understanding your individual fluid needs based on your age, medical status and lifestyle can help you keep your hydration status in balance.
If you need help assessing the warning signs of dehydration and treating it, come see the experts at GoHealth Urgent Care. You can walk in without an appointment, or you can check in online. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.
Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant