Your Health A-Z

The very real dangers of dehydration

Dehydration is a condition marked by large loss of body water or when the amount of fluids you expend exceeds what you take in. Discover the most common causes of dehydration, what symptoms to look out for and when to head straight to the emergency centre.

Water plays a vital role in the human body. In fact, well over two-thirds of human body weight is made up of this clear fluid. Given the numerous critical functions water plays in your physiological makeup, it is easy to see why the term “water is life” is no exaggeration. It’s therefore unsurprising that dehydration is considered a major health risk.

Dehydration is defined as the abnormal loss of fluids from the body,” says general practitioner based at Mediclinic Vereeniging, Dr Karlien Bezuidenhout. “Basically, when the amount of water lost from your body exceeds what is ingested, dehydration sets in. So it’s important to take heed of the early warning signs.”

Your kidneys are an important set of organs located to the rear of your abdominal cavity. Amongst other crucial functions, these bean-shaped organs act as a filter, leaving behind the crucial water and salts required for re-absorption into your body. Any excess fluid and waste materials form what is known as your urine.

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“Urine is a useful indicator of your hydration levels – in two different ways,” Bezuidenhout explains. “The colour of your urine tells you whether drinking more fluid is required. Yellow urine generally means you are already in a state of mild dehydration. This is especially true after a night’s sleep. The darker yellow the urine, the less hydrated you are. Conversely, clearer urine indicates adequate fluid levels. Then there is the frequency that you urinate. A normal person should urinate no less than six to eight times daily.”

While some cases of dehydration can be attributed to heat exposure during the summer months, Bezuidenhout says the bulk of patients suffer from this condition in tandem with gastrointestinal issues.

“Stomach complaints and the associated vomiting and/or diarrhoea leaves a patient quite literally washed out,” she says. “So it is very important to get the patient out of the danger zone and restore optimum fluid balance. Mild cases of dehydration tend to be remedied by oral rehydration methods, which include electrolyte replacement solutions. More serious instances of dehydration in adults require administering an intravenous drip, where patients tend to feel better almost immediately. In cases where babies or young children are involved, hospital admission is often indicated.”

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Thirst: “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water. In fact, thirst indicates you are already mildly dehydrated. Drink adequate amounts of water before and after exercise.”

Little bits often: “Drinking a cup of water when you’re already thirsty won’t rectify dehydration. Spacing out your water intake throughout the day is a far more effective method of fluid level maintenance.”

Remember: “Forgetting to drink enough water applies particularly to those in the older age groups. Adequate fluid intake is therefore critical amongst the elderly.”

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.