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Dehydration Signs and Symptoms

Are you drinking enough water?
Are you drinking enough water?

Dehydration is a condition where you're losing more fluids than you're taking in. Doctors typically divide it into three stages, mild, moderate and severe. At the moderate and severe levels, you may experience symptoms like dizziness, coma and even death. It's a serious condition that requires immediate attention.

Now researchers have found there can be significant problems, even if you're only mildly dehydrated. Our bodies are about 75% water. Researchers at the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology, analyzed 33 studies on dehydration. They found that losing just 2% of your body's water can impair “cognitive performance, particularly for tasks involving attention, executive function, and motor coordination...” In other words, tasks that require attention or complex thought, may be much more difficult with just mild dehydration.

Students that were quizzed while mildly dehydrated, experienced a 12 percent increase in errors on the tests they were given. In professions where attention and precision are critical, mild dehydration could lead to fatalities. Imagine a doctor, pilot or police officer that makes 12 percent more errors simply because they haven't been drinking enough water.

It can happen fast too. Jogging at a moderate pace, without drinking any water, can cause 1% to 2% dehydration in just an hour. If you're running hard it can happen in as quickly as 30 minutes.

We lose water in several ways, from our breath, saliva, urine, feces, tears and sweat. About 20% of it is replaced by the food we eat. The remainder is from what we drink. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the average woman should consume about 91 ounces (11.5 cups) of total water per day, while the average man should consume 125 ounces (15.5 cups). But that number can vary greatly, depending on the environment and activity.

There are a couple easy ways to tell if you're dehydrated. One is the color of your urine. Ideally, urine should be lighter and shades like “pale lemonade” or “straw” are considered good. The darker your urine gets, the more likely it is you're dehydrated.

(Urine varies in appearance, depending principally upon your level of hydration. Normal urine is a transparent solution ranging from colorless to amber but is usually a pale yellow. Strange colors could be harmless or could indicate serious issues. Seek medical advice for actual diagnosis of unusual colors.)

Urine Color Chart

The second way is something called the pinch test. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand. On a normal person, when you release the skin it will immediately spring back. But the skin of a dehydrated person tends to remain “tented” and may take a few seconds to return to a normal, flat appearance. Take a minute to try the skin test now and see if you need water.

Pinch Test

Mild and Moderate Dehydration

Medical professionals diagnose mild and moderate dehydration using several different indicators. They include simple thirst, a dry or sticky mouth, increased tiredness, decreased urine output, darker urine (that may have a strong odor), headaches, muscle cramps, skin that's dry and cool, few tears, dizziness and weakness.

Severe Dehydration

It crosses over to severe dehydration when you start experiencing very dark urine, very dry skin, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sunken eyes, extreme sleepiness, confusion, irritability, fainting, nausea and vomiting.

Dehydration Signs

Babies and Young Children

Babies and young children present special cases. They may not be able to speak for themselves, so you must be alert to their particular warning signs. Those include no tears when they cry, a dry tongue and mouth, high fever, diapers that remain dry for more than 3 hours, sunken eyes, sunken cheeks or a soft spot on the front of the head (called the fontanel), lack of energy and sleepiness that doesn't follow normal patterns.


The elderly may be at risk from several fronts including medications like diuretics, a diminished sense of thirst, forgetfulness or the physical inability to get water for themselves. When caring for the elderly, people with mental or mobility issues, it's important to watch for signs of dehydration. If they are being monitored, you might see a drop in their blood pressure as well as any of the other signs previously mentioned.

No matter what you're doing, keep water handy. If it's something you don't think about, set an alarm to remind yourself every hour to two. Stay hydrated, smart and alert.

Prevention of Sun Stroke and Dehydration

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Updated 10/31/2020