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Are You Dehydrated? Many People Are and Don't Even Know It!

When you drink less water than your body needs, the imbalance can lead to serious problems. Water is crucial for survival -- it's the base of all your body fluids, like blood and digestive juices, it helps nutrients from your food get absorbed and be transported, and it helps eliminate waste. Even becoming mildly dehydrated (when you lose as little as 1 percent to 2 percent of your body weight) can seriously impact your body's ability to function.


Feel thirsty? You're already mildly dehydrated. A key to staying hydrated is to drink water before you feel thirsty.

What Causes Dehydration?

In simple terms, dehydration results when your body does not have as many fluids as it should. This is generally the result of:

  • Losing too much fluid (due to vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, fever or other illness)

  • Not drinking enough water (due to nausea, illness, being too busy)

  • A combination of the two

Normally, adults lose over 10 cups of water daily, just from sweating, eliminating waste, breathing and other routine functions. You also lose electrolytes, which are minerals like sodium and calcium that keep your body's fluids balanced. However, go out for a jog, mow the lawn or neglect to drink as much water as you should (during a long airplane flight or after exercise, for instance), and your body will begin to dry out.

Even at a very mild dehydration level you'll have a lower circulating blood volume. At a 2 percent loss of body weight, athletic performance is affected. At a 3 percent to 5 percent loss, reaction time, concentration and judgment are impacted. Reach a 9 percent to 15 percent loss -- severe dehydration -- and your life is in danger.

Signs You May be Dehydrated

If you're thirsty now, you're already mildly dehydrated. That's because, contrary to popular belief, thirst is not a reliable indicator of proper hydration. Ideally, you should drink enough water so that you don't become thirsty, not wait until you're feeling parched and then drink enough water to quench your thirst.

According to the Mayo Clinic, rather than relying on thirst as an indicator, check the color of your urine. If you're well-hydrated, your urine will be clear or light colored. If not, your urine will be dark yellow or amber. Dehydration, at a mild to moderate level, can also cause these symptoms:

  • Excessive thirst

  • Fatigue

  • Inactivity in children

  • Dry mouth

  • Little urination (going eight hours or more without urination for adults and older children, going through fewer than six wet diapers a day for infants)

  • No tears when crying

  • Muscle weakness

  • Headache, dizziness, lightheadedness


If you're exercising, in hot weather or live in a high altitude, you'll need extra water. So do the elderly, infants and children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

When dehydration becomes severe, the following symptoms may occur (and should be treated as a medical emergency):

  • Extreme thirst

  • Irritability and confusion in adults, fussiness and sleepiness in children

  • Very dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes

  • Lack of sweating and little to no urination

  • Sunken eyes and shriveled, dry skin without elasticity

  • Sunken fontanels (the soft spot on top of a baby's head) in infants

  • Low blood pressure

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Fever

  • Delirium or unconsciousness

Who's Most at Risk?

Anyone can become dehydrated (remember, if you ever feel thirsty, it's because you're already mildly dehydrated), but certain groups are more at risk. This includes:

  • Infants and children: They have low body weights and sweating capacity, but they go through a high amount of water and electrolytes. Meanwhile, diarrhea is common in infants and children, and they may be reluctant to take in fluids.

  • Older adults: As we get older, the body is able to conserve less water. Your sense of thirst also becomes less acute and your body does not respond to temperatures as well. The elderly may also eat and drink less than other adults, particularly when living alone or in a nursing home environment.

  • People with Illnesses: Certain chronic illnesses increase the risk of dehydration. These include uncontrolled diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, alcoholism and adrenal gland disorders. Sore throat, cold, fever and flu can also increase the risk if you don't feel like drinking or have vomiting or diarrhea.

  • Extreme athletes: People who participate in endurance sports like marathons, triathalons, mountain climbing and long-distance cycling are at high risk of dehydration. Dehydration is cumulative, and during exercise you can lose 24-32 ounces of water an hour (even more if it's hot). The longer the exercise continues, the harder it is to stay hydrated and the more your fluid debt accumulates.

People who live at high altitudes (8,000 feet or higher) are also at an increased dehydration risk. In order to adjust to the high altitude, your body will urinate more and breathe faster, which means you need extra water to keep hydrated.

Focus on Staying Hydrated

It's commonly said that you should drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day to stay healthy, but this is really just a rule of thumb, as so many factors (weather, age, activity level, health) affect how much water your body needs.

In general, you can prevent dehydration by focusing on staying hydrated throughout the day. Keep water with you and drink it regularly -- before you get thirsty. If it's hot outside or you're exercising (or pregnant or breastfeeding), you'll need even more fluids so drink more water.

In the case of illness, start drinking extra water (or giving it to your child) right away (don't wait for signs of dehydration to occur).

Remember, as soon as you're thirsty you're already dehydrated, so drink enough water to prevent thirst (and be sure your urine is clear or light yellow), and you should stay well-hydrated.

Recommended Reading

Bottled Water: Which City's Tap Water System is Making a Flood of Cash off of You?

The Six Worst Lifestyle Choices You Could Make


The Mayo Clinic

Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia

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