Dehydration is loss of water and important blood salts like potassium (K+) and sodium (Na+). Vital organs like the kidneys, brain, and heart can’t function without a certain minimum of water and salt. In underdeveloped countries, dehydration from diseases like cholera and dysentery kills millions every year (usually infants and children). Still, with severe vomiting or diarrhea and occasionally with excessive sweating, you can become dangerously dehydrated right here in the U.S.A. Below are some warning signs for dehydration.

Signs of Dehydration




Dry lips

Slightly dry mouth membranes


Very dry mouth membranes

Sunken eyes

Sunken fontanelle (soft spot) on infant’s head.

Skin doesn’t bounce back quickly when lightly pinched and released.


All signs of moderate dehydration

Rapid, weak pulse (more than 100 at rest).

Cold hands and feet

Rapid breathing

Blue lips

Confusion, lethargy, difficult to arouse

If you’re severely dehydrated, you must get to a hospital right away. Intravenous fluids (IVs) will quickly reverse dehydration, and are often life-saving in young children and infants.

In teenagers and adults with moderate dehydration, careful home treatment can be safe, but phone contact with a physician is advisable. Children under 10 with moderate dehydration should see a physician first, though hospitalization usually isn’t necessary.

Mild dehydration is safe to self-treat at all ages, as long as it doesn’t worsen.

To treat dehydration, you must first address the cause: Fever, Vomiting, Diarrhea, and Heat Exhaustion are the most common reasons for dehydration. Click on each of those topics to review treatment. While you’re treating the underlying problem, begin small amounts of oral re-hydrating solution (ORS).

Commercial ORS replaces important blood salts and water in balanced amounts designed especially for dehydration in sick people They are formulated to allow your intestines to absorb maximum amounts of water along with small amounts of salts. Don’t confuse ORS with sports drinks designed for concentrated energy and salt replacement in healthy, high-performance athletes. These drinks can actually aggravate vomiting and diarrhea and are so concentrated they can limit intestinal water absorption.

Once signs of dehydration have disappeared, ORS is no longer necessary, but a clear liquid diet might still be useful if vomiting or diarrhea persists.

See a doctor if you think you might be dehydrated and have a fever higher than 101 degrees, experience diarrhea or vomiting for more than two days, have decreased urine output or feel weak and dizzy. Go to the nearest emergency room if you have a temperature higher than 103 degrees, produce no urine for more than 12 hours or begin to feel confused. Infants, young children and elderly people should see a doctor or go to the nearest emergency room if vomiting or diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours as dehydration affects them faster.

More than dehydration on our Self Care Home Page



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