Causes, symptoms, effects and treatment

Last Updated:

The dangers of Dehydration

Your body requires an adequate balance of fluids and electrolytes to work properly. Dehydration upsets that balance and can cause serious health problems, even death.

This article we will describe what dehydration is, its causes and symptoms. How it harms your body, how to treat it and how prevent it.

What is Dehydration

Dehydration is when your body loses more fluid than it takes in.

This loss of fluids has an impact on body functions and disrupts its metabolic processes.

Levels of Dehydration

Mild Dehydration

A loss of up to 5% of your body fluids is called Mild dehydration. Its symptoms are dry mouth, feeling thirsty and a drop in the frequency of urination. Some people may feel tired and experience cramps.

It is usually tolerated without serious consequences. But it can disrupt mood and impair short-term memory and cognitive performance in children, young and older adults

It is a condition that is solved very easily by drinking water to replenish the body's fluids.

Moderate Dehydration

A 5 to 10% dehydration is considered Moderate Dehydration.

Athletes can usually lose between 6 and 10% of body weight during athletic events. Water loss causes a decrease in physical performance starting at 2% dehydration levels.

People who are moderately dehydrated may feel fatigued, confused and dizzy. Athletes will notice a drop in endurance and motivation.

Drinking water or sport drinks usually reverses Moderate dehydration.

Severe Dehydration

Extreme cases of dehydration with a loss of 10 to 15% of body fluids are known as Severe Dehydration.

This causes mental deterioration, severe thirst, increased heart beat rate and quickened breathing. This is a life threatening condition and a person with Severe dehydration needs immediate medical treatmnt.

Don't underestimate Dehydration

Frequent dehydration episodes, even mild or moderate ones can cause damage to your heart and kidneys.

How does the body lose water?

Water loss takes place almost constantly, and there are several mechanisms that cause it:


Even in cases of severe dehydration, urine production continues. The kidneys produce urine to rid the body of urea which is a toxic nitrogen-containing compound that is formed when amino acids that form proteins are broken down in the liver.

Urine output can drop to one pint (0.5 litres) per day in dehydrated people (normal output is around 3 pints - 1.5 litres).

The color of urine (See pee chart below) is a good indicator of dehydration: it can range from dark brown in severely dehydrated cases to clear or transparent yellow in normally hydrated people.

cracked, parched dry soil
Water is critical, keep hydrated


Sweat is used by the body to regulate its temperature: as the sweat evaporates from the surface of the skin it draws body heat and produces a cooling effect. The quantity of water lost by sweating can range from a normal value of 1 pint (0.5 litres) to up to half a gallon (2 litres) during hot weather or during vigorous excersise.


You can see the water lost while you breathe when you exhale during cold weather: the warm water vapor in your breath condenses in contact with the cold air forming a foggy cloud.

You lose water with every breath you take. But the total amount is rather small: roughly two cups of water (0.4 litres) daily.

Bowel Movements

About one half cup of water is lost daily through bowel movements (0.1 litre). The large intestine is very efficient at recovering water from stool and recycling it back into the body, but a small quantity remains in faeces.


Watery loose stools can provoke a serious loss of water, a condition known as diarrhea.

If your bowel movements are watery stools three or more times a day, you are suffering from diarrhea. It causes not only the loss of water but also of ions such as sodium and potassium which are crucial to health: Loss of electrolytes can cause twitching, weakness, seizures and disturbed heart beat.


Many body functions use electricity, and electric current is provided by ions, which are charged atoms, also known as "electrolytes".

When minerals dissolve in our body's internal fluids, the atoms that compose them separate and acquire an electric charge, becoming ions.

Common salt dissociates into Sodium and Chloride ions. Other examples of ions are calcium, potassium and bicarbonate.

Our body needs a stable balance of electroytes to maintain its processes working in a healthy way.

To maintain an electolyte balance during cases of dehydration, oral rehydration salts are used. These are either commercially prepared mixtures or "home-made" solutions:

Home made Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) Recipe

The following recipe for Oral Rehydration Salts comes from


  • Six (6) level teaspoons of sugar.
  • Half (1 ⁄ 2) a level teaspoon of salt
  • One quart (1 litre) of clean drinking water (or boiled and then cooled water). This is roughly five (5) cups of water.

Mix the salt and sugar in the water until they dissolve.

The salt provides sodium and chlorine ions, the sugar masks the taste of salt and provides energy.

You can also include mashed banana or orange juice which will provide potassium ions to the mixture.

Diuretic drinks

Diuretics are substances that increase the output of urine by the body.

Alcohol is a diuretic: for every unit of alcohol that you drink (where one unit is roughly 0.3 oz - 8 g of alcohol), your body will lose 2.7 fl oz (80 ml) of water.

Caffeine is also slightly diuretic (coffee, tea, energy drinks and cola drinks all contain caffeine), but over 300 mg a day is needed to have a diuretic effect.

Read More at our:

> > Do coffee or tea hydrate like water does? webpage (yes, they do and they count against your daily water requirement)

The following table shows the average (values can vary quite a bit) caffeine content in one cup or glass of some common beverages:


Caffeine per cup or glass

Coffee Brewed


Tea Black


Tea Green


Soda Cola


Energy Drink




Dehydration often happen for very simple reasons:

  • Not drinking enough water because you are too busy
  • Increased water loss due to strenuous exercise or working outdoors in hot weather
  • Lower water intake during hikes or camping due to lack of access to safe drinking water
  • Not hydrating during flights (you should drink about 8 ounces of water each hour - 224 ml).

Medical conditions may also provoke dehydration:

  • Diarrhea. As mentioned further up, it can cause a sudden loss of water and electrolytes.
  • Vomiting. Also causes a tremendous loss of fluids and electrolytes.
  • Fever. A higher body temperature increases the loss of fluids.
  • Increased urination. As in the case of diabetes -which increases the frequency of urination. Diuretics and some blood pressure medications can also cause dehydration.
  • Illness. Especially in older adults: even minor ailments such as a cold, the flu, bronchitis or bladder infectinos can lead to dehydration.

Risk Factors

Anyone is at risk of becoming dehydrated but some groups are at greater risk:


Certain medications and chronic illness may increase the risk of dehydration (diabetes, dementia).

Older people's bodies have less water in them so their water balance can be easily disrupted.

Infections in lungs or bladder can cause dehydration in senior citizens.

Older persons don't realize that they are dehydrated, and that is because they don't feel thirsty -their sense of thirst is less acute. So don't rely on thirst as a signal to hydrate.

Reduced mobility may also hinder them from drinking water by themselves.

Children and infants

The very young are also at risk. For instance if they are experiencing diarrhea and ⁄ or vomiting they will loose fluids very quickly.

Their body surface to volume area is higher than that of an adult so they have more area to lose water through their skin.

Babies cannot communicate that they are thirsty and cannot drink on their own. Be aware of their level of hydration especially during illness or hot weather.

Chronic Illness

Diabetes, kidney disease or even a common cold can make you more prone to dehydration. Diuretic medicines that increase urination can also increase the risk of dehydration.

Working or Exercising in Hot weather

Hot weather increases fluid loss through evaporation and pespiration, dry conditions are worse than humid ones in terms of water loss. But humid conditions don't let sweat evaporate (and cool the skin) so heat build up can lead to an increased need for fluids.

People working outdoors or excercising vigorously in hot weather require extra fluids to remain hydrated.

Signs of Dehydration

Be aware of the following signs and symptoms and take note that they are different depending on age:

Dehydration symptoms in adults

"Pee" color chart

The darker your urine's color, the more dehydrated you are.
  • Being very thirsty
  • Urinating less frequently than usual
  • Dark-colored urine (see the "pee" chart)
  • Feeling fatigued, tired
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dry skin

In young chldren

  • Dry Mouth and tongue
  • Lack of tears when crying
  • No wet diapers for 3 or more hours
  • high fever
  • Irritability or on the contrary unusually sleepy or drowsy
  • Sunken eyes or cheeks


For cases of mild or moderate dehydration, drinking small amounts of water will help the body to restore its fludids. Drink slowly to avoid overloading the stomach with water.

Avoid caffeinated beverages if you don't drink them regularly.

For those who are sweating (i.e. during exercise or work), sport drinks will replenish the lost electrolytes.

Cases of Severe dehydration need immediate medical attention.

Avoid Dehydration by keeping Hydrated


Don't wait until your dehydrated: drink plenty of water and eat foods with a high water content (fruits and vegetables).

Pay attention to your thirst: drink when you feel thirsty.

If you are vomiting or have diarrhea, start drinking extra water or take an oral rehydration solution.

Start hydrating before you exercise and replenish your fluids at regular intervals during and after you have finished exercising.

Drink plenty of fluids during hot or humid weather to replace the fluid lost through sweating.

Dry weather even during winter (cold-dry weather) can also cause dehydration: drink extra water to replenish your fluids.

Older adults should drink more fluids if they are not feeling well because they tend to dehydrate very quickly.

Hydration indicator

Clear or pale yellow urine is a good sign that you are properly hydrated.

When to see a doctor

You should call your doctor if you think you or someone in your family may become dehydrated. Do this before the person becomes dehydrated.

Get immediate medical treatment if:

  • Diarrhea has gone on for 24 hours or more.
  • The person is disoriented, irritable, much more sleepier or less active than usual.
  • The person loses consciousness or has confusion or seizures.
  • Can't keep fluids down
  • The person's fever is over 102°F (38.8°C)
  • Heat stroke symptoms appear: rapid pulse or rapid breathing.
  • The person's condition does not improve or worsens despite treatment.


Dehydration can lead to very serious complications, even frequent episodes of mild dehydration can have nasty consequences (urinary infections, kidney stones or kidney failure).

Lack of electrolytes alters the body's electric signalling system and can cause seizures, involuntary muscle contractions and loss of consciousness.

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures combined with dehydration can cause heat cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion and the serious heat stroke, a life-threatening condition.

Read More at our:

> > Do I need 8 Glasses of Water a Day? webpage
(the myth of the "8 x 8" rule: learn why it is not true)

Cite this article:

. ©2018. Dehydration. Patagonia Wellness, 11 Oct. 2018.

Tags: Dehydration, 8 x 8 rule, hydration, water requirements, daily water intake

Subject: Dehydration. Learn the causes, symptoms, treatment and health risks of dehydration.


References and Further Reading


Calista Plummer, Dehydration and You: A 15-Minute Book. Learning Island.

, Kristen E. D'Anci, and Irwin H. Rosenberg. Water, Hydration and Health (Adequate hydration). Nutr Rev.. v. 68, no. 8: 439 - 458 (): . DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x