Summer Safety Series: Dehydration
Updated: Jan 24
Dehydration can occur any time of the year due to a number of different causes, but it's especially problematic during the hot summer months. Here's what parents need to know about keeping themselves and their kids hydrated in the heat.
Everyone knows that getting hot and running around partaking in fun activities can work up a sweat and get you thirsty, but did you know that getting too thirsty can lead to the condition referred to as "dehydration"?
Dehydration is the point at which the human body is lacking the appropriate electrolytes and hydration (i.e., water intake and retention) to function properly due to the body losing more fluids than it is consuming. This can result in headaches, nausea, and even some more serious health consequences and hospitalization if left unaddressed.
However, in most cases, this is entirely preventable.
What causes dehydration?
Dehydration is caused when the body loses more fluids than what it is receiving.
This primarily occurs when a person sweats a lot or simply doesn't drink enough fluids to maintain proper daily hydration in the first place (parents that solely live off of soft drinks and energy drinks—I'm looking at you). A person may also drink plenty of water but simply overheat and sweat so much that they experience dehydration anyway.
Aside from just drinking water—especially in hot weather when we're all pouring sweat despite trying to stay cool—it's also important to make sure we're getting the proper electrolytes to help our bodies absorb and hold onto that water.
These electrolytes are calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. If you look at many sports drinks and hydration supplements, these are the primary ingredients because they help us stay hydrated and not have all of that water we're drinking simply flush through our systems immediately.
Even with a great amount of water intake for your activity level, you still put yourself at risk of dehydration if your diet doesn't include these essential electrolytes to help you hold onto those fluids. (Fellow chronically bloated parents, do not fear. Staying hydrated will not make you "puff up" due to water retention. However, you'll definitely feel better, have more energy, and have far fewer headaches!)
Who is most likely to get dehydrated?
Unfortunately, one of the most significant groups at risk of experiencing dehydration are babies and children. Not only are they smaller in stature and therefore have less body space to retain additional fluids when playing and sweating up a storm, but they are also the age group that is most likely to experience vomiting and diarrhea, both of which greatly amplify the level of dehydration taking place. Babies and children are far more sensitive to losing fluids than adults are, and they struggle even more to communicate such issues to parents and caregivers, so proper hydration is especially important for our little ones.
Our elderly friends and family members are also at an increased risk of dehydration due to the common body changes that take place and make these individuals less likely to notice the symptoms of dehydration.
Additionally, there are also some chronic health conditions that make a person more at risk of dehydration, the main culprit among these being diabetes. Individuals with diabetes tend to lose far more fluids due to their kidneys trying to flush out and balance their blood glucose levels. Diabetes and dehydration commonly go hand in hand regardless of the seasons or weather outside, so these folks are consistently at risk of dehydration.
Individuals who struggle with alcoholism are also at an increased risk of dehydration due to the diuretic effects of alcohol consumption as well as impaired cognition and judgment (based on the severity of the condition) that may cause them to not catch any symptoms of dehydration in a timely manner.
If someone is taking diuretic medications, especially those who may have high blood pressure and be prescribed such as treatment, this can also contribute to dehydration and should be kept in mind when going outdoors in the heat or engaging in physical activities that result in sweating and fluid loss.
Symptoms of dehydration
Aside from simply feeling extremely thirsty, here are some of the other symptoms a person may experience when dehydrated:
dry mouth or lips
Children—particularly infants and toddlers—may be dehydrated if they display any of the following symptoms:
fewer tears when crying
littles one with a soft spot will have it appear to be somewhat sunken in
reduced frequency of bowel movements
dry or parched mouth
When dehydration becomes severe, a person may experience the following symptoms:
reddened or flushed skin
loss of appetite
low blood pressure coupled with a high heart rate
If you or a friend or family member experience the following extreme symptoms of dehydration, seek out emergency medical assistance immediately:
a body temperature of 103°F or higher
lack of sweating
dry, hot, and red skin
Little ones who experience extreme levels of dehydration may exhibit the following symptoms:
only urinating once or twice a day
wrinkling of the skin
discoloration of the feet and hands
hands and feet are cool to the touch
eyes appear sunken
The above symptoms are extremely serious and indicate that an individual's level of dehydration has become life-threatening. If someone is experiencing such severe effects of fluid loss, 911 should be called immediately as they may begin to experience heatstroke or kidney failure. Untreated severe dehydration may also result in death, so there is no time to waste if you or someone else begins experiencing such significant symptoms.
When a child displays any significant symptoms of dehydration, even those that may be less concerning than the last list of severe symptoms of dehydration, parents and caretakers are strongly advised to contact their pediatrician immediately regarding medical advice that can be provided based on their child's specific age and any preexisting health conditions.
How to treat dehydration
In mild cases of dehydration when someone first notices symptoms, the condition can easily be treated by providing the afflicted individual with cool water to sip on or an electrolyte beverage that doesn't contain too much sugar. Allow them to cool down and hydrate, and it's also best to avoid much more physical exertion to prevent the condition from immediately worsening right after cooling down and drinking something.
If the dehydration is significant or if it has reached levels to become life-threatening, the person will need to receive intravenous fluids to properly regain balance of their electrolytes and overall hydration.
For little ones, it is recommended to provide them with an age-appropriate hydration drink such as Pedialyte and similar products under different brand names instead of sports drinks to avoid the risk of vomiting or other adverse health effects due to the high amount of sugar contained in sports hydration beverages.
One of the best ways to prevent dehydration is by hydrating well before engaging in any sweat-inducing activities or being outdoors in the summer heat. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids—especially water—and try to eat foods or consume beverages that will help keep your electrolytes balanced.
A great summer snack to help keep everyone hydrated is fresh, juicy watermelon. Not only does it taste amazing, but it also provides a ton of water without having to just sit there and drink something! However, if you or your family aren't fans of watermelon, there are plenty of other food options to make extra water intake easy and delicious.
It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the outside temperature and the extent to which you or the person you're with may be sweating. Take breaks to cool down and rehydrate frequently.
For parents of little ones, make sure you provide enough fluids and shade when your baby, toddler, or younger child will be out in the heat. It's also essential to dress them for the weather. Some coverage to protect them from the sun may be ideal, but it's also good to try to provide them will cooler, lighter, and well-ventilated clothing to help keep them from overheating and sweating too much, resulting in dehydrating levels of fluid loss.
Also, for all age groups, it's advised to avoid both caffeinated and alcoholic beverages when you know you'll be out in the heat as both caffeine and alcohol function as diuretics and will only increase a person's fluid loss along with all of that summertime sweating.
For additional information and answers to questions you may have about dehydration, treatment, and other aspects, please check out the Cleveland Clinic's article discussing things more in-depth.
The NHS has also provided additional information on dehydration, including further information for parents and caregivers with children under the age of 5.
Be sure to check out our other Summer Safety Series posts:
Disclaimer: Please note that this article was written with 'dehydration caused by summertime heat' in mind and not dehydration attributed to illness or other health concerns. Although the advice is very similar, it may not be 100% accurate for other circumstances unrelated to dehydration caused by summer heat and activities.