If you or a family member are feeling tired, headache-y or cranky, it's easy to assume that a cold or virus is coming on. However, the real culprit could be dehydration. "The stomach flu, fever, morning sickness, sweltering temperatures, exercising heavily on a hot day, and even travel are all common dehydration causes," says Jennifer Williams, M.P.H., a research scientist at Abbott.
Dehydration is basically a loss of body water. This includes both water and vital electrolytes such as sodium, chloride and potassium. Water is so critical it makes up about 60 percent of body weight in adults, and up to 75 percent of body weight in infants. We need it for important jobs such as regulating body temperature, maintaining healthy skin and joints, digesting food, removing waste and helping our brains function at their best.
However, Williams notes that "when your body loses water faster than you can replace it, and dehydration is moderate to severe, serious complications can develop such as seizures, kidney failure or dangerous drops in blood volume which affect blood pressure."
The good news is that with a few tips you can learn to recognize the signs of dehydration in children and adults so you can take action quickly.
Know Who's at Risk
Babies and Children: Dehydration can affect anybody, no matter how old — or young — they are, even if they're completely healthy. Some people are particularly prone to dehydration such as infants, young children and the elderly.
"We need to be really concerned about infants and young children because their bodies contain a higher proportion of water, so they're impacted by water loss more quickly," says Williams.
Dehydration becomes a concern when a person loses just three percent of their body weight in water. For a 15-pound baby that translates to as little as eight ounces (about the size of a small juice glass), so dehydration can happen quickly.
Older Adults: When it comes to aging adults, they can be low on fluids for lots of different reasons. The first is that they may simply forget to drink up. As our sense of thirst becomes less keen with age, some may not even realize that they haven't had enough to drink. There are other dehydration causes too. Older family members may be taking medications such as diuretics that dehydrate them or they may avoid drinking sufficient fluids simply to cut down on frequent trips to the bathroom.
While dehydration can make most people irritable and lethargic, other symptoms can vary from age to age. Infants may not produce tears, have a dry mouth or a low-grade fever, and may stop wetting their diapers. Adults may become dizzy or thirsty, suffer from a headache, constipation or dry skin, and their urine may be darker than usual (normally it should be clear or very light yellow in color).
Because infants are affected by fluid loss so quickly, it's always best to call your pediatrician as soon as you suspect dehydration, and continue normal feeding of breast milk or formula as needed. For children and adults, Williams recommends asking a few simple questions about their symptoms as well as asking about their recent fluid intake.
Fluids First – And Foods Count!
Should the evidence point to dehydration, a glass of water is a good start, but you may want to follow up with an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte®. The reason? When we lose fluids due to sweat, heat, diarrhea, and vomiting, our bodies also lose electrolytes — like sodium, potassium, and chloride — needed to maintain fluid balance and keep our nervous systems and muscles functioning properly. Sipping Pedialyte® over a 24-hour period can help restore those lost electrolytes.
It's also helpful to keep in mind that hydration isn't just about what we drink. Fluids only make up about 80 percent of our daily water intake while food accounts for the additional 20 percent. For maximum impact choose water-packed foods like fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, soup and yogurt.
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