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Severe Dehydration: How to Recognize the Symptoms and When to Act

3 minutes to read

man drinking water in the sun

With day after day of record-breaking temperatures above 100°F, this Summer is one for the record books. It’s hot, and it looks like the heat is here to stay for a bit longer.

Along with the heat, a staggering number of people have experienced serious health dilemmas because, among the allure of sunny days, many don’t recognize the signs of severe dehydration.
You’re probably familiar with regular dehydration, but have you heard of its formidable cousin: severe dehydration? It’s like dehydration’s supervillain version.

While you’re out enjoying yourself playing pickleball, walking, or tending to the garden, dehydration can sneak up on you surprisingly fast. Severe dehydration is a silent threat, often underestimated and relatively unknown to many.

The blistering heat can cause this beast to strike with alarming speed, and before you know it, you might find yourself in a serious state – dehydrated and struggling.

Understanding Severe Dehydration

wilting dry plant

Dehydration is a condition that arises when the body loses more fluids than it consumes, disrupting the balance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and chloride.

Severe dehydration is an advanced stage of dehydration where fluid loss becomes severe and can lead to critical health issues.

For most people, severe dehydration starts by not drinking enough fluids and is exacerbated by prolonged exposure to heat, exercising in hot weather, and excessive sweating. Drinking alcohol instead of water under these conditions fuels the fire. Anyone can become dehydrated, but kids and older adults are more vulnerable. Diarrhea and vomiting from illness are the likely culprits for young children. Older adults with medical conditions or who take medications are at a greater risk of severe dehydration.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Severe Dehydration

woman fanning herself in the heat

It is vital to recognize the symptoms of dehydration early to initiate timely intervention. The signs may vary depending on the individual and the underlying cause, but common symptoms include:

1. Extreme thirst: A persistent and intense thirst is the body’s way of signaling a need for water.

2. Dark yellow or amber-colored urine: Reduced fluid intake leads to concentrated urine, a sign of dehydration.

3. Dry mouth and cracked lips: Dehydration reduces saliva production, resulting in a dry mouth and chapped lips.

4. Fatigue and weakness: Dehydration can lead to decreased blood volume, affecting oxygen transport and causing fatigue and weakness.

5. Dizziness or lightheadedness: Reduced blood flow to the brain can result in dizziness or feeling faint.

6. Rapid heartbeat and low blood pressure: The body attempts to compensate for fluid loss by increasing heart rate, leading to low blood pressure.

7. Dry, cool skin: Dehydrated individuals may have cool, clammy skin due to decreased sweating.

Steps to Overcome Dehydration

Man drying off from the heat

If you have any of the above signs of dehydration, take the following steps to replenish and restore your body’s hydration levels.

1. Prioritize water consumption as it’s the most effective way to rehydrate.

2. Consider oral rehydration solutions if dehydration results from diarrhea, vomiting, or intense exercise; these solutions provide crucial electrolytes.

3. Sports drinks can also help replace lost nutrients.

4. Cool your body, find a comfortable environment, and avoid excessive heat. If you’re assisting someone, help them cool down and remove any excess clothing, allowing better heat dissipation.

Swiftly addressing dehydration is essential for maintaining overall health and preventing complications. Remember to monitor your fluid intake and stay hydrated, especially during hot weather and physical activity.

When to Go to the ER for Severe Dehydration

woman and doctor walking together

Recognizing the signs of severe dehydration is critical in determining when immediate medical attention is necessary. Certain situations warrant urgent action:

1. Extreme symptoms: If the individual experiences severe symptoms such as confusion, or loss of consciousness, seek medical help immediately.

2. Unsuccessful rehydration attempts: If attempts to rehydrate orally have not been successful, medical intervention is required. In some cases, drinking water cause you to throw up.

3. Underlying health conditions: Individuals with pre-existing health conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, or heart problems should seek medical attention promptly if dehydrated.

4. Severe vomiting or diarrhea: Prolonged or severe vomiting and diarrhea can quickly lead to severe dehydration and require immediate medical attention.

5. Heat-related conditions: Extreme heat and sun exposure can exacerbate dehydration and necessitate urgent medical help.

Treatment of Severe Dehydration

representation of batteries recharging

In some cases, treating severe dehydration requires swift and comprehensive medical care, and immediate hospitalization might be necessary. The treatment may include:

1. Intravenous (IV) fluids are administered to replenish the lost fluids and rapidly restore electrolyte balance.

2. Monitoring vital signs, electrolyte levels, and urine output are monitored closely to assess the body’s response to treatment.

3. In some cases, medications may be given to address dehydration’s underlying cause or manage symptoms.

Preventing Severe Dehydration

happy couple wearing hats

Prevention is essential in avoiding the development of dehydration. Some practical measures include:

1. Drink enough fluids when you’re out in the sun. You will need more fluids to stay hydrated when it is hot out than you typically would on a cooler day.

2. When exposed to high temperatures or engaging in intense physical activities, consume electrolyte-rich drinks or sports drinks to maintain proper electrolyte balance.

3. Schedule any physical activity during cooler periods of the day.

4. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and use an umbrella to shade yourself.

5. Never leave children or pets in hot cars, even for a minute.

old man receiving water

Listen to your body and recognize the early symptoms of dehydration to take corrective actions promptly.

Severe dehydration can lead to life-threatening complications if not promptly addressed. Recognizing the signs of severe dehydration and knowing when to seek urgent medical help are crucial steps in preventing severe consequences.

Maintaining a balanced approach to fluid intake, especially during periods of increased risk, can significantly reduce the likelihood of experiencing dehydration. We can ensure optimal hydration and overall well-being by being attentive to our bodies and taking preventive measures.

1. Crouch, M. (2022, August 2). 8 signs of dehydration that you shouldn’t ignore. AARP.
2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (n.d.). Dehydration. Mayo Clinic.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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