6 Signs of Severe Dehydration and How to Treat It

Chances are you suffer from chronic dehydration. After all, statistics show that over 75% of Americans do. That’s close to 246 million people.

While dehydration is common, it doesn’t look the same in everyone. Its signs and symptoms can vary depending on the person affected, as well as the severity of the condition. Infants and children, as well as the elderly, are at increased risk for dehydration. Plus, what doctors classify as a mild to moderate case of dehydration varies from severe dehydration.

Catching it early is key to proper dehydration treatment and prevention of a more serious case that could become life-threatening.

What Is Dehydration?

Dehydration occurs when an individual loses more fluid than they take in. Since the body is made up of two-thirds water, it’s essential for human life. In fact, water plays a large role in normal body functions, like facilitating digestion, lubricating the joints and eliminating toxins to keep the skin healthy.

Even if your body has only lost 1-2% of its water content, it can have adverse effects that present themselves in the form of dehydration symptoms. A fluid deficit from water loss can leave you feeling thirsty or sleepy, as well as having a mild headache, dry mouth with bad breath or muscle cramps, often referred to as “charley horses.” You likely won’t have the urge to use the bathroom as frequently, as you’ll experience minimal urine output.

What Happens to Your Body When It Dehydrates?

If you’re feeling thirsty, your body is likely already dehydrated. Why is this the case? Because your thirst mechanism lags behind your actual level of hydration.

Losing body water without replacing it results in your blood becoming more concentrated. This causes your heart rate to increase to maintain your blood pressure, and it triggers your kidneys to retain water (hence, decreased urination).

Less water in your system also hinders your body’s ability to regulate your temperature, which can lead to hyperthermia, or a body temperature that’s well above normal. And because fluid levels in the brain lower, they affect your mood, memory and coordination.

6 Signs of Dehydration

As fluid loss worsens from one being mildly to moderately to severely dehydrated, 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 checking the color of your urine. Normal urine should be pale yellow in color, like lemonade. If your urine is a darker color, similar to apple juice, this could be a sign of moderate to severe dehydration. Not urinating at all? You’re most likely severely dehydrated.

What to do: Should you find your urine is a dark yellow, be sure to start drinking more water immediately. It’s best to take small sips of water your body can properly absorb, rather than gulping down glass after glass of water that your kidneys will expel. If you feel you’re not getting enough fluids on a regular basis, 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: 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 mildly to moderately dehydrated. If the skin seems to stick together (i.e., it “tents”), this is a sign of severe dehydration.

What to do: Like with darker urine, you should increase your water intake and drink fluids if you’re experiencing mild to moderate dehydration. While a glass of water is a good “go-to,” if you’ve just finished a strenuous workout, you can also try rehydrating drinks like a sports drink or coconut water. 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 severe dehydration as 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. So, it’s important you visit a doctor for dehydration when you experience these symptoms. After thorough examination, if a medical professional determines you are dehydrated, you’ll likely be hooked up to receive intravenous fluid containing a concentrate rehydration solution (water with salts and sugars like sodium chloride and potassium) for quick delivery of fluids to the thirstiest parts of your body.

4. Confusion, Dizziness or Lightheadedness

Did you know that your brain is composed of 73% 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 have adverse effects. If you’re feeling like you might pass out at any moment, or you’re confused over where you are, how you got there or what you’re doing, it might mean you are severely dehydrated.

What to do: Don’t take symptoms like these lightly. Properly rehydrate by slowing drinking water and eating water-filled foods like cucumbers, watermelon, tomatoes, strawberries, apples, and grapes. Both options will help replenish your body with the minerals and electrolytes it needs to absorb into the brain and tissues. If you’re experiencing severe dehydration with confusion, you should go to the emergency room to be checked out by a healthcare provider.

5. Fever and Chills

Usually we associate a fever and chills with having an illness like the flu or an ear infection. 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: Stop any sport or strenuous activity you’re involved in immediately. The stress you’re placing on your body and its systems is making your symptoms worse. 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° indicating severe dehydration in adults, go to the nearest emergency room. 

6. Unconsciousness

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 results from several factors, including low blood pressure, dizziness, etc. When accompanied with other dehydration signs, this could be indicative of severe fluid loss.  

What to do: Unconsciousness is a red flag that your body is in dire need of water. Call 911 immediately if you’re around someone who passes out. They’ll need to be transported 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.

One last thing to note: When you’re severely dehydrated, it’s key to get 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 in a CBS interview, “Some patients are just over compensating based on the information they’ve heard.” But this can result in more harm than good. Knowing how much fluid is adequate for your body’s weight and lifestyle can help.

Dehydration in Children

While all individuals can suffer from dehydration, infants and children are particularly prone. This is because their bodies contain more water than adults, so they’re more vulnerable to dehydration. Since their kidneys aren’t fully mature, they lose more water than they retain. Young children also often have difficulty recognizing and communicating their need for water.

In addition, infants and children are at higher risk for illnesses like fever, vomiting or diarrhea, which can be the cause of dehydration. What makes dehydration in children worse is that illnesses make it even more difficult to retain fluids when administered to reverse the effects of fluid loss.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends oral rehydration solutions for the treatment for dehydration. Such solutions can be purchased at your local grocery store or drugstore, and contain the right amount of salts and sugars needed to rehydrate infants and children. Because they don’t contain the proper salts and sugars, soda (including ginger ale), fruit juice, and chicken broth are not advisable.  

Dehydration in the Elderly

As with infants and children, elderly people are also at higher risk for dehydration. Some elderly people can become chronically dehydrated if they take certain medications (such as diuretics). They can also metabolically have a diminished sense of thirst or physically have a difficult time getting a glass of water.

Signs of dehydration you should look for in the elderly include low blood pressure, confusion, dizziness and constipation. Urinary tract infections, which are common in older adults, can also cause dehydration. If symptoms become severe, make sure you take your elderly relative to the emergency room.

Winter Dehydration

There’s a strong link between humidity levels and human health, according to a study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But that doesn’t mean that dehydration is just a hot-weather concern. During the cold winter months, sweat evaporates quicker and this can lead individuals to believe they’re not losing fluids as rapidly as on a warm summer day. However, this is not the case.

Cooler temperatures can also reduce the body’s thirst response, meaning you might be less likely to consume water. And you know how you can often see your breath in the cold air? This is actually water vapor your body is losing that needs to be replenished.

Tips for Staying Hydrated

The best way to avoid excessive fluid loss is to prevent dehydration in the first place. By following a few, quick tips, you can be one less American with chronic dehydration:

  • Splurge on a reusable water bottle – When something’s right in front of you, it’s hard to ignore. Having a fun water bottle by your side can make it even more exciting to drink water morning, evening and night. Remember, it’s better to drink slowly than gulp it all down at once.

  • Forget plain water – Not sure how you’ll come close to drinking your fill of fluids throughout the day? Try adding natural ingredients to your water, like fresh strawberries, cucumbers, or orange or lemon slices. There are also plenty of flavored seltzer waters out there for you to choose from.
  • Eat more water-filled foods – While fruits and vegetables are good for you because of all their nutrients—including vitamins, minerals and fibers—they also contain large amounts of water. In fact, cantaloupe, watermelon, leafy greens, and tomatoes all contain 90% water!
  • Switch up your snacks – Instead of reaching for pretzels, crackers or cookies, chose fresh or frozen fruits with yogurt or cut-up veggies with hummus when your blood sugar runs low. Paired with protein, these fruits and vegetables can give you the added boost to get through your afternoon.
  • Make small lifestyle changes – If you exercise a lot, you might need more than water. Take a sports drink or coconut water for post-workout. Plus, avoid alcohol consumption if you’re already feeling dehydrated as this increases your fluid loss.

Want to test your knowledge of staying properly hydrated? Take this drinks quiz.

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