Know the warning signs of dehydration

Our bodies are made up of approximately 70 percent water. Water is the most abundant natural resource on earth. Yet, most of us do not drink enough of it, and our bodies suffer in many preventable ways.

We become dehydrated when the amount of fluid we lose is greater than the fluid we take in. We routinely lose fluids in our sweat, exhaled air, urine and bowel movements. In a normal day, we have to drink a significant amount of water to replace this routine loss. If we are sick, we may also lose fluids through vomiting or diarrhea.

Warning signs of dehydration include:

  • Thirst. It’s the first signal that you’re already dehydrated. Dehydration can also mask itself as hunger, particularly sugar cravings.
  • Brain fog. You may have fatigue, lightheadedness, muscle cramping, headaches, dry mouth, darker urine and a feeling of confusion that some people call “brain fog.”
  • Bad breath. When you’re dehydrated, you may not have as much saliva in your mouth. This allows bacteria to thrive, resulting in bad breath. Saliva has antibacterial properties.
  • Stiff joints. Joints can be stiffer without the lubrication that water provides.
  • Poor digestion. Water is vital for healthy digestion. It helps move food through the digestive tract and waste pass more smoothly. Along with fiber, water is important to eliminate waste from the colon and urine from the bladder. If you are not properly hydrated, you are also more likely to get a urinary infection.

Dehydration may affect your ability to drive safely. Some research shows that driving errors doubled during a two-hour drive when drivers were dehydrated, similar to driving while intoxicated.

With severe dehydration, heart palpitations, confusion and weakness can occur as the brain and other organs receive less blood. This can result in coma, and even death, if left untreated. Infants and elderly people are more likely to become dehydrated. It’s unusual for a baby to have a dry diaper for more than three hours.

Over time, dehydration can make your skin lose elasticity and wrinkles appear deeper. You are more likely to get kidney stones. And you may not be able to regulate your body temperature, making you more prone to heat stroke.

To avoid dehydration:

  • A good rule is to drink water in between meals.
  • Drink fewer caffeinated drinks. Caffeine may act as a diuretic causing you to lose fluids. If you’re feeling excessively tired in the middle of the day, try drinking water first.
  • Avoid alcohol, including beer, especially when it is hot. Alcohol increases water loss and impairs your ability to notice early signs of dehydration.
  • Replace calorie-filled beverages with water (provided you are eating three healthy meals a day).
  • Bring extra water to all outdoor events where you might sweat more.
  • Use warm water instead of hot water in the shower. Hot water can dry out your skin.

The water you drink does not have to be bottled. The tap water in your home, whether from a well or public water system, may be perfectly fine to drink. To find out about your home drinking water quality, you can contact the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or the Maryland State Water Quality Laboratory at 800-300-TEST.

The exact amount of water you need depends on your size, level of activity, general health and the weather. If you have a condition like congestive heart failure or late kidney disease, you may be on a fluid-restricted diet and need to consult your healthcare provider for those limitations.


WebMarla Spring, FNP-BC, MSN CDE, is a medical provider at Anne Arundel Medical Group (AAMG) Diabetes and Endocrine Specialists. To reach her office, call 443-481-4600

Originally published July 31, 2017. Last updated July 9, 2019.

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