dehydrationDuring the 2007 Chicago Marathon, 300 people were treated for dehydration and the effects of heat. Yet you don’t have to run 26.2 miles in hot weather to become dehydrated. We often fail to realize that dehydration can affect everyone, from infants to the elderly, and can occur in any weather.

In one study, dehydration was diagnosed in 6.7% of hospitalized patients ages 65 and older, and 1.4% had a principal diagnosis of dehydration. Twenty-seven percent of people living in long-term care facilities were dehydrated on hospital admission. Fluid and electrolyte disturbances from acute gastroenteritis result in 1.5 million outpatient visits, 200,000 hospitalizations, and 300 deaths per year in infants and children.

Dehydration occurs when the body doesn’t have enough water. Since water constitutes approximately 60% of an adult’s body weight, it is crucial to life. Water in our body contains electrolytes, the minerals sodium and potassium. Losing too much water and the electrolytes it carries can lead to a medical crisis, and severe dehydration is a life threatening emergency.

Dehydration can be due to several causes, which may occur separately or in groups, including vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, fever, and not consuming enough water to replace body losses. The American Medical Association notes that the signs and symptoms of dehydration can be vague or deceptive. Children and the elderly especially may not pay immediate attention to thirst and can become dehydrated quickly.

Drinking water to treat dehydration makes sense, but it doesn’t replace the electrolytes that are lost with water. Electrolyte replacement beverages such as Pedialyte are recommended for infants and children. Older children and adults can drink sports beverages. For those who are unable to drink or are nauseated and can’t keep fluids down, prompt medical attention is essential.

Prevention is the best strategy. Make sure children and the elderly drink small amounts frequently throughout the day as well as eat fruit and vegetables that contain water. According to the Institute of Medicine, in most cases if adults drink when they’re thirsty, they will meet their body’s fluid needs. Fruits and vegetables also contain fluids, and choosing five or more servings of these healthful foods each day will help meet the body’s water needs.

Special circumstances, such as the following, may require more fluids:

  • the first sign of illness or fever;
  • hot or humid weather; and
  • being at altitudes greater than 8,200 feet.