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Water is the main constituent of our body and makes up for 75% of the total body weight in a normal healthy individual. The amount of water in our body should be maintained at optimum levels for normal functioning of the innumerable cells and tissues.

What is dehydration?

Water is the main constituent of our body and it makes up for 75% of the total body weight in a normal healthy individual. The amount of water in our body should be maintained at optimum levels for the normal functioning of the innumerable cells and tissues in our body.

Water is lost normally when we breathe, sweat, urinate or pass stools. This loss is compensated with the intake of water and other fluids. Dehydration refers to a state of water shortage in the body wherein the amount of water lost is much higher than the amount of water or fluids that we consume.

Infants and children have been noted to be highly susceptible for dehydration while it may also be noted in adults. Dehydration can be life-threatening in severe situations. A regular intake of water and other fluids is required to keep the body in a healthy condition.

What causes dehydration?

As mentioned before dehydration results from an imbalance between the amount of water lost and the amount of intake of water and other fluids. Therefore dehydration can occur either due to excess loss of water or due to decreased intake of water. In some instances both excess loss and decreased intake can result in dehydration.

Infants, young children, older adults and individuals suffering from long term illnesses are more prone to develop dehydration. 

Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the most common causes of dehydration which are associated with increased loss of water and other essential substances called electrolytes (generally minerals such as sodium, potassium). These conditions result in early occurrence of dehydration in infants and young children. Other causes of increased loss of water include: excessive urination (a condition commonly noted in diabetic individuals), excessive sweating (following vigorous exercise, increased heat or outdoor activities) and conditions such as fever. Severe cases of burn injuries can result in a significant amount of loss of water from the body that can lead to life threatening situations.

We normally lose about 10 glasses of water from our body everyday and it needs to be replenished. Failure to replenish the lost water can lead to dehydration. We commonly tend to drink less water and other fluids when we are busy or sick. A lack of availability of drinking water when we are travelling or performing outdoor activities such as trekking or camping can also decrease the amount of water that we consume. This can create a deficiency of water in our body leading to dehydration.

What are the symptoms and signs of dehydration?

Increased thirst is one of the early signs of decreasing water levels in our body. However, most of us are not able to drink water or other fluids immediately in some situations and thereby the condition progresses to dehydration. A decrease in the water content in the body also reflects in the urine that we excrete. The urine output reduces when the body is facing water scarcity. It also becomes darker and more concentrated.

Once dehydration sets in, one may start feeling dizzy or light headed and may not be able to stand or walk. The mouth may feel dry and sticky and you may feel tired and sick. In case of prolonged duration of dehydration, sunken eyes and lack of tears are also noticed.

How dehydration is presented in infants and young children?

Infants and young children may not able to express thirst in some instances. Vomiting and diarrhea should alert the parent about the possibility of dehydration. The dehydrated infants and young children may display some of the symptoms such as dry and sticky mouth, dry and chapped lips, and decreased tears. Additionally, the soft spots on the infant’s head (the joints on the skull, referred to as fontanelles) may feel sunk do a greater extent than normal.

What are the symptoms of severe cases of dehydration?

In severe cases of dehydration, infants either become very fussy or become too sleepy. In case of adults, increased irritability and confusion may indicate severe dehydration. Other signs and symptoms include: dry, shriveled skin; low blood pressure; fever and increased or rapid heartbeats. The affected individual may become unconsciousness following prolonged periods of dehydration.

How to diagnose dehydration?

Dehydration can easily be diagnosed based on the signs and symptoms observed. Physical examination that involves examination of the skin, physical features, heart rate and other associated features can confirm the presence of dehydration. Laboratory examinations such as blood tests and urine tests may be advised in certain severe cases to evaluate the levels of essential minerals in the body that are normally lost due to dehydration. It may also be advised if any underlying disorder is suspected. 

How can dehydration be prevented?

Dehydration can easily be prevented by consuming adequate amounts of water and other fluids regularly. While 8 glasses of water has been advised for an average adult, individual requirements may vary based on the lifestyle followed. Individuals who exercise and indulge in outdoor sporting activities require higher amount of water to make up for the excess amount of water they lose every day. You may need to drink more water when the weather is hot. Wearing appropriate clothes to reduce sweating during a hot day can also prevent excessive loss of water from the body. Remember to carry enough water when going on a trek or travelling for long distances.

Dehydration should be suspected in infants and children when they are sick and also when they are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea. Same applies to adults also. Ensuring that the infants, children and sick adults drink enough water can prevent dehydration in them. You may also need to replace the essential minerals that are lost due to vomiting and diarrhea. These are generally available as over-the-counter suspensions or may be prescribed by your doctor.

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Speak to a healthcare provider if you suspect dehydration in your infant. Decrease in the frequency of wet diapers in infants or decreased urination in children and adults who are sick should raise the suspicion of dehydration and adequate measures to replenish the water levels in the body should be taken.

Individuals who are suffering from disorders such as diabetes should undergo appropriate treatment to reduce the complications associated with these disorders. Individuals who may have severe burns may need to be admitted to the hospital for immediate care to prevent complications of dehydration.

While water is the best source to rehydrate the body, other fluids such as fruit juices, health drinks and other non-aerated beverages are also useful in replenishing the water content in our body.