Dehydration – Signs, Symptoms, Causes, & Prevention

Without a doubt, water is the most important substance in the human body and the one that is most often taken for granted. Given, throughout your lifetime you are unlikely to feel the real effects of dehydration and may underestimate how dangerous it truly is.

The human body comprises between 60 to 75% water, with this “nutrient” being critically involved in virtually every single chemical and metabolic process your body performs. Water loss, even to the effect of just 2% can be observed and felt on the body both physically and mentally, but further water loss causing dehydration is a surefire recipe for trouble.

Signs of Dehydration

There are several signs that you are becoming dehydrated, which usually occur in sequence. The first manifestations are rather innocuous, and may not indicate the danger that lies ahead. Common signs that dehydration is eminent include:


This is the first sign that your body is becoming dehydrated. Thirst is your body’s mechanism to let you know that it needs water, as the volume detected is becoming less than normal. However, humans are creatures with “higher thinking”, that tend to underestimate the dangers, instead making clear-cut indicators something else.

Dry Mouth

As the body’s water volume becomes depleted, it starts to compensate by reducing processes it deems as nonessential in a progressive manner. After thirst ensues, if water is not consumed, the next thing you are likely to notice is dry mouth. Salivation all but ceases, and your throat starts to feel irritated from the lack of moisture.

Decreased Urine Output

This usually occurs several hours after the initial signals that dehydration is beginning have gone unchecked. The next compensatory mechanism to kick in is the recycling of water, by means of re-absorbing the water volume in urine, and using it to fulfill important functions. Thus, the urge to urinate all but stops. However, residue remains in the bladder and explains why the formation of kidney stones is higher in persons that do not consume enough water.

Decreased Perspiration/Lacrimation

Next on the stop is reduced sweating and tear production, as the body diverts the water used to cool your skin when it gets too hot, or moisturize your eyes when they get too dry and instead use it to ensure your blood volume and brain are supported.

Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps may occur for many reasons, but in the case of dehydration, it relates to insufficient blood flow to the nerves connected to muscles, or improper blood electrolyte levels that regulate contractility of muscle fibers.

Thus, nerves may fire excessively, causing painful spasms or contractions.


These usually develop further along the dehydration pathway, when blood volume becomes reduced as the body starts to divert fluid from the blood to other processes. Palpitations ensue as the heart starts to contract in an unpredictable matter, in an effort to still supply organs with enough blood by modulating blood pressure.

Lightheadedness may also occur, especially when rapidly changing position (such as from seated to standing), as the reduced blood volume pools in the lower legs and takes a longer time to travel upwards to the brain when you rise.

The Sensation of Cold

Furthermore, as water is redirected from nonessential processes, blood closest to the skin moves away making it harder to regulate temperature. Normally, blood vessels either increase or decrease blood flow under the skin to adjust to environmental temperature, but dehydration causes the loss of this mechanism.


This usually occurs when blood volume has become so reduced that your brain does not receive sufficient oxygen or nutrients, and may partially die. Coma may result, which if lucky, will only result in mild cognitive impairment if you recover. Death usually ensues following this point.

Causes of Dehydration

Dehydration results if insufficient water is consumed, too much water is lost, or a combination of the two occurring at the same time. But exactly what mechanisms contribute to this scenario? Let’s check them out now

Excessive Sweating

Most likely to occur in athletes that perform for extended periods of time without rehydrating. This is especially true in marathon runners who may forego liquids if it means having to stop. Excessive sweating may also occur as a body’s means of trying to avoid heatstroke.

Frequent Urination

Frequent urination is not a normal body process, but a result of either metabolic disease or recreational habits, such as alcohol consumption. Alcohol is considered a diuretic and accelerates the removal of water from the body.

In like manner, diabetes that coincides with excretion of glucose usually entails excessive water loss, owing to the fact that glucose traps water to its molecule. Diuretic medications also cause frequent urination but are usually prescribed under the guidance of a physician.


Vomiting causes expulsion of stomach contents, making it very difficult to rehydrate by oral means. Though acute water restriction can help to relieve vomiting, this practice should only be done if you know what you’re doing and to achieve gradual rehydration by oral means.


By far, the most common and deadly cause of dehydration in the world. It is the number one cause of death in children, especially in impoverished countries with poor access to basic sanitation. Diseases such as cholera are widespread and transmitted via infected stool, creating a dangerous cycle of dehydration and death.

Children are unable to properly explain symptoms, causing many inexperienced parents to not notice warning signs and wait until it’s too late. Furthermore, diarrheal disease also makes rehydration by oral means difficult, as water and food material does not spend enough time in the large intestine for water resorption to occur.

Added to the fact that a very bad myth permeates many cultures that you need to “not drink anything” for diarrhea to resolve itself, and what you are actually doing is paving the way for death.

Treatment of Dehydration

Based on the contributing factor causing dehydration, it can be relatively easy to treat, or may even require medical intervention. Commonly used management techniques include:

Oral Rehydration

This involves basic consumption of water, sometimes along with electrolytes in order to maintain blood fluid balance and metabolic processes. Oral rehydration is suitable for reversing the early warning signs of dehydration, or in athletes that may be predisposed to dehydration by excessive perspiration.

Intravenous Rehydration

Usually administered by medical professionals, it may involve administration of saline or other rehydration solutions by slow drip over the course of several minutes to hours. Intravenous rehydration is necessary when consumption of liquids is not possible or rendered ineffective by vomiting or diarrhea.

Intravenous rehydration is also used to try and reverse critical symptoms that may be developing due to the dehydration.

Other Medication

These may include antidiarrheals, antibiotics, anti-diabetes medication to prevent glucose elimination or others that may be deemed necessary.

Good Sanitation

Basic access to health care and sanitation can avoid diarrheal disease, eliminating the major cause of pediatric death altogether. Simple hand washing techniques and proper disposal of waste can safeguard millions around the world.


Educating a wide cross-section of society about what to look for, how to easily manage dehydration when warning signs manifest, and debunking myths and cultural perceptions about diseases can go a far way in reducing this largely preventable cause of death.

Dehydration – Summary

Dehydration is nothing to scoff at-especially when you consider that it is the primary cause of death in children throughout the world. It is largely preventable, and treatable given that you address it urgently.


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