What Is Dehydration?

Dehydration is having less water in your body than it requires to function properly. Water is one of the most important building blocks of your organs, tissues, and other anatomical structures (including your skeleton), so being dehydrated is a threat to your health. Dehydration can occur anytime you use up more water than you take in, whether through physical activity or some form of illness. The greatest risk of dehydration is to young children and older adults who have a limited ability to communicate their need for fluids.

If you require prompt medical care for dehydration, head to one of Baptist Health’s several area urgent care clinics. More severe cases may require hospitalization.

Signs & Symptoms

The first symptom of mild dehydration is usually thirst (though not everyone experiences thirst when dehydrated). More serious cases of dehydration give rise to other symptoms. These can vary by age. The symptoms of infants and young children include:

  • Dry mouth and lips
  • Listlessness
  • Long periods without urination
  • Sunken facial features
  • Tearless crying

Adult symptoms include:

  • Bad breath
  • Chills
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Extreme thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heat intolerance
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle cramps
  • Skin redness
  • Swollen feet

Dehydration can also produce mental and emotional symptoms, including confusion, memory problems, anxiety, and irritability.

In addition to these symptoms, persistent periods of dehydration can result in:

  • A weakened immune system: Being dehydrated compromises your ability to remove toxins and other waste products from your body. This can lead to a weakened immune system and greater susceptibility to disease and infection.
  • Increased risk of obesity: Drinking less water slows down our metabolism, which refers to the various organic processes critical to maintaining life. A slower metabolism without a corresponding change in diet can result in the increased storage of food energy as fat cells inside the body.
  • Premature Aging: One of the ways that we notice aging is by the appearance of wrinkled skin. Dehydration lowers the water content of your skin, breaking down the collagen that helps keep it smooth. This accelerates wrinkling and the aging process.
  • Reduced heart health: When we become dehydrated, our blood thickens and blood flow decreases. This is the body’s way of preventing further water loss from the cells, but it also results in increases in blood pressure and higher levels of blood cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure and blood cholesterol increase your risk of coronary heart disease.


You become dehydrated when your body’s water usage exceeds your rate of intake. Certain conditions can cause that imbalance to occur faster. These include:

  • Intensive sweating: Sweat is mostly water, so if you’re exercising vigorously, are in a hot, humid environment, or both, your risk of dehydration increases.
  • Fever: Your body uses fluids at a faster rate when you have a fever. These fluids need to be replenished to avoid dehydration.
  • Increased urination: Some medications can cause you to urinate more often than usual. If you don’t adjust your water consumption to compensate, dehydration is the likely result.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea: You can become dehydrated if you’re vomiting or experiencing diarrhea, especially with frequent episodes.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Not all liquids counteract dehydration. In fact, some, including beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages, make dehydration more likely. Alcohol is a type of diuretic, meaning that it accelerates the removal of fluids from your body.

Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, also increase the risk of dehydration.

Risk Factors

Anyone who experiences unreplenished water loss is at risk for dehydration, but some groups are more at risk than others. These include:

  • Babies and small children: In addition to having a lesser ability to vocalize their needs, the youngest among us have a second vulnerability related to physical stature. Infants and small children have a higher ratio of surface area (skin and GI tract) to internal mass (the rest of your organs) than adults, which means that they lose water more easily by means of perspiration. This vulnerability lessens over time because you grow more inside than outside.
  • Seniors (age 65 years or older): Elderly persons tend to hold reduced levels of water in their bodies and are sometimes less able to connect thirst with a need for fluids.
  • Persons with chronic medical conditions: Diabetes and other medical conditions that increase the volume and frequency of urination are another potential source of dehydration.
  • People who work or are active outdoors: Working or exercising outside, especially in warm weather, can act as a precondition for dehydration. Rising body temperatures, regardless of how much you sweat, increase the body’s demand for fluids.


Your physician can usually diagnose dehydration by documenting symptoms, asking questions about recent activity, and conducting a physical exam. This diagnosis can be confirmed through certain blood and urine tests, which record the levels of:

  • Blood urea nitrogen
  • Creatine
  • Urine sodium
  • Plasma osmolality

Plasma osmolality measures your body’s electrolyte-water balance. This is important because electrolytes are water-dissolved salts (sodium) and minerals (calcium, magnesium, and potassium) that play a role in regulating your body’s neurochemical activity. Dehydration typically causes a loss of electrolytes, which reduces your neurochemical efficiency and can lead to muscle discoordination, cramping, and even blackouts.

Treatment Options

Based on a physical exam and test results, your physician will categorize your degree of dehydration. Treatment varies according to the intensity of the condition:

  • Mild dehydration: Persons who are mildly dehydrated should increase water consumption. If you’ve had a significant fluid loss from sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea, drink something containing electrolytes, such as a sports drink or coconut water.
  • Moderate dehydration: Individuals with moderate levels of dehydration require the administration of fluids intravenously at an urgent care center or emergency room.
  • Severe dehydration: Severe dehydration is a life-threatening medical emergency. Your physician will arrange for your transfer to an emergency medical facility for treatment. If you haven’t seen a physician and suspect that you may be suffering from severe dehydration, call 911 or have a friend or family member take you to the nearest medical emergency facility.

With proper treatment, recovering from mild dehydration may occur in as little as a few minutes. The recovery period for more serious cases can run from a several hours to two or three days. If not addressed, dehydration can lead to serious complications, up to and including death. These include heat stroke, kidney failure, cerebral edema, seizures, shock, and comas.


The best way to prevent dehydration is to consume water throughout your day. Eating water-rich fruits and vegetables is another means of increasing fluid intake. Keep in mind that if you’re thirsty, you’re already experiencing a water deficit.

As a general guideline, try to consume eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. You may require more if you’re physically active or are losing fluids due to illness. Water or sports drinks with electrolytes are preferred; minimize the consumption of coffee, sodas, and alcoholic beverages.

Learn More About Dehydration

Dehydration is a loss of water below the levels required for your body to operate effectively. Depending on severity, being dehydrated can endanger your health and is potentially life-threatening. Prompt medical care is called for. Baptist Health offers assistance at several urgent care centers around the region. Find an urgent care near you.

Next Steps with MyChart

Discover MyChart, a free patient portal that combines your Baptist Health medical records into one location. Schedule appointments, review lab results, financials, and more! If you have questions, give us a call.