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How to Spot the Signs of Dehydration

If you feel like this summer is hotter than ever, you’re not imagining it. Average air temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere reached all-time highs in mid-July 2023, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.1 The summer is not over yet, and with more high temperatures to come, it is vitally important to stay hydrated. 

Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in, depriving your body of the water and salts that it needs to function properly. Many things can lead to dehydration—like a nasty stomach bug or illness—but you’re more likely to become dehydrated when you spend time outside in the heat.

“Think of the type of day where the kids just keep playing and running around, and before you know it, four or five hours have passed, and they’ve been outside and haven’t taken a break to drink something,” Chicago-based pediatrician Alison Tothy, MD told Verywell. 

A good rule of thumb is to take breaks for water and shade every 20 to 30 minutes, especially when the air temperature is above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Tothy said, “That doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t be outside; it just means that you have to pay a little more attention to what’s going on.”

As you’re relaxing on the beach, attending kids’ sporting events, or simply trying to survive the heat this summer, you should be on the lookout for signs of dehydration in yourself and those around you. Here are some key signs to know.

If You’re Thirsty, You’re Already Dehydrated

Mild symptoms of dehydration can include feeling thirsty or tired, mild headaches, and darker than usual urine, Brenna Farmer, MD, Chief of Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, told Verywell.

Your urine should be light yellow, not dark yellow. Frequency of urination can also indicate hydration: if you take care of children or adults who wear diapers, make a mental note of when you put a clean one on. If the diaper is dry for several hours, that could be a sign of dehydration in someone who cannot express that they are thirsty.

An attitude shift may also be a subtle sign of dehydration setting in, Tothy said.

“Kids, like adults, can start getting cranky in the heat,” Tothy said. “If they’re not verbal or they can’t express what’s going on, they start getting fussy, and they start having tantrums.”

When kids start looking flushed and excessively sweaty, it’s probably time to take a water break, Tothy said. It’s best to catch dehydration signs early before more severe symptoms start.

Severe Dehydration Can Make You Dizzy, Fatigued, and Confused

When severe dehydration hits, you may stop sweating and making urine and tears. This is because your body doesn’t have enough fluid to shed, Farmer said.

Severe symptoms of dehydration may include:2 

  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin
  • Extreme thirst
  • Less frequent urination
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Fainting
  • Rapid heart rate (palpitations)

In babies and young children, signs of severe dehydration may include:2

  • No wet diapers
  • No tears
  • Listlessness
  • Irritability or not consolable when crying
  • Sunken fontanelle (soft spot on the scalp) in infants
  • Sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks in children
  • Skin that does not flatten when pinched and released (this also applies to older adults)

If you catch dehydration early enough, drinking water or an electrolyte beverage should be enough to rehydrate you. But in more severe cases, you may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous fluids to restore your health as soon as possible.

Rehydrate With Small Sips

In most cases, drinking liquids will help with dehydration. However, it is best to drink small amounts very frequently to avoid getting sick, Farmer said. Some people feel nauseous when dehydrated; vomiting will only dehydrate you more.

If you’re nauseous, still try to take one or two sips every few minutes until your symptoms subside. For parents, this might require monitoring their toddler and ensuring they sip slowly and consistently, Tothy said.

Popsicles can also help people of all ages rehydrate, as long as you’re drinking enough water along with it, Farmer said. Fruits and vegetables with high water content, like watermelon and cucumber, can also provide some water for hydration.

As long as you are tolerating larger amounts of liquids without vomiting or gagging, it is okay to rehydrate to your heart’s content, Farmer said. Beverages like Pedialyte can also help replenish your body’s electrolytes with sodium and glucose, restoring the needed balance of fluid and essential salts in the body.

Kids and Older Adults Have a Greater Risk of Dehydration

Of course, it’s important to stay hydrated when it’s hot out, but specific individuals should take extra care to drink water and seek shade. This includes parents and caretakers of small children, who have to look out for the little ones and themselves, Farmer told Verywell.

“Babies and infants have a smaller body size but larger skin surface area” relative to size, Farmer wrote in an email to Verywell. This means they lose fluid easily through sweating but have less body fluid to lose. Plus, babies can’t easily communicate that they are thirsty.

Kids and adults with certain developmental differences may struggle with verbal communication, too. In those cases, it is vital to monitor for physical signs of thirst and dehydration. Sitting in a wheelchair, car seat, or stroller can also affect your risk of overheating, Tothy added.

Young children who play outside and athletes of all ages also have a greater risk of becoming dehydrated because you lose more fluid when you are physically active. Additionally, certain medications and substances—like alcohol—can affect your risk of dehydration, Farmer said.

People taking diuretics, or “water pills,” are at an increased risk of dehydration because these medications make you urinate more often. These medications are often prescribed to bring down swelling in cases of heart failure. Other medications, including some prescribed for allergies, behavioral health, and dementia, interfere with your ability to sweat and cool yourself down.

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