5 Signs of Dehydration
The definition of dehydration in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is as good as any other: “an abnormal depletion of body fluids.” The human body needs a certain amount of fluid for everything to function properly. For example, the kidneys need fluid to filter and clean the blood. We lose fluid every day through our urine, sweat, and places you might not even expect, like our lungs. Not only water is lost, but also some kinds of salts and other nutrients.
Dehydration occurs when we lose more liquid than we take in. All of the fluid we lose needs to be replaced every day. Under normal conditions, thirst tells us that we need fluids; we drink water, and we do not become dehydrated. While anyone can become dehydrated, it is more of a problem for very young children and the elderly.
The number-one reason why children get dehydrated is viral gastroenteritis, or the stomach flu, as it is often called. This refers to a viral infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes accompanied by a fever. As a result of dehydration from gastroenteritis:
- there are some 1.5 million visits to the doctor every year in the United States.
- 200,000 children are hospitalized.
- 300 children die.
Clearly, most children get over gastroenteritis. If a child between the ages of six months and five years comes down with vomiting and diarrhea, you need to know how to prevent dehydration and treat it, as well as recognize when it calls for immediate medical attention. Infants less than six months old with vomiting and/or diarrhea (not spitting up) always need to be seen by a doctor.
A child with gastroenteritis loses a lot of fluids with watery diarrhea and vomiting. While they would normally be thirsty, they might not want to drink anything because of nausea. On the other hand, some feel thirsty because their body is telling them they need to drink, but drinking too much too fast can cause more vomiting. You can usually get sick children to keep down fluids if you use the right fluids and in the right amounts.
Signs of dehydration include:
- less urine being produced. This may mean dry diapers, or no trips to the bathroom to urinate. Urine that is dark-colored is more concentrated, and evidence of some amount of dehydration. Clear to light yellow urine usually means your child has enough fluids.
- fewer tears. A dehydrated child cannot make tears.
- mucous membranes, like the inside of the mouth, dry up.
- lack of sweating.
- fast heartbeat.
If your child has many of these symptoms, she needs to see her doctor or go to the emergency room as quickly as possible. If you get the sense that your child is very sick, weak, or not behaving normally, even if she doesn’t have all the symptoms of dehydration, you need to take her to the doctor.
If your child is vomiting and/or has diarrhea, but is urinating normally, crying wet tears, and keeping down small amounts of fluids, he is probably minimally, or not, dehydrated, and you can treat him at home.
The key is to give small amounts of oral rehydration fluid, like Pedialyte or Gastrolyte, to your child. You can ask your doctor if you are not sure what he or she recommends. This is a good thing to do before your child gets the stomach flu, in order to keep some on hand. You should not use drinks filled only with sugar, like apple juice, because the large amounts of sugar can actually increase diarrhea. Plain water is also not recommended, because it does not replace any of the salts or calories lost. Pedialyte has a better balance of water, salts, and calories.
To replace the fluid young children lose with vomiting and/or diarrhea, you need to give them small amounts of liquid frequently. As long as you don’t allow them to drink a lot all at once, they will usually keep liquids down. You can give them small sips (one teaspoon) every five minutes. If your child vomits, wait 30 minutes and try the fluids again.
It is often suggested that you try to get a sick child to drink at the beginning of any illness, before they start vomiting or having diarrhea. You also want to keep the child’s temperature down with acetaminophen, because children lose more water via sweat when they have elevated temperatures.
If your child stops vomiting and can keep small amounts of fluid down, you can gradually increase what you give her. Many doctors recommend a return to a regular diet as soon as possible, even in small amounts. What was called a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and tea) is not always recommended after gastroenteritis.
Your child should be able to recover from this and return to a fairly normal diet and behavior within a few days. If he does not get better, he needs to be seen by a healthcare provider.
It is very important to know that there is now a vaccine to prevent infection with rotavirus, which was the major cause of gastroenteritis in the United States and around the world. Before the vaccine, essentially all children had this virus before the age of five years. The vaccine can be given to infants in oral doses based on which brand is administered. Both brands are safe and effective. Take the time to discuss this with your pediatrician, before your baby