How to Tell If You Are Dehydrated and What To Do About It
Sometimes after a hard run, particularly if it is hot, I develop abdominal cramps that I assume is because my body is sending more blood than normal to the extremities, leaving the gastrointestinal tract high and dry so to speak.
But is that the real reason, or could I simply be dehydrated? Or maybe it is a combination of both?
In extreme cases, dehydration can be fatal and the condition is often a precursor to heat stroke. Here in Maryland, those of us who coach young athletes are hyper-vigilant about proper hydration in the wake of the 2018 heat stroke death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.
What is dehydration?
Our bodies are made up of more water than you might think—two-thirds roughly—and water is necessary for numerous bodily functions. Dehydration is when you lose more body fluid than you are taking in.
There are a number of ways you can lose fluid. The most common are sweating and going to the bathroom (#1 and #2) but you can lose fluid through tears, saliva and just through breathing. The chance to become dehydrated is even greater if you have a fever, vomiting or diarrhea. Even losing a small percentage of bodily fluid can upset the balance and send the body into dehydration.
There are two levels of dehydration: mild to moderate and severe. The symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration can be mistaken for other things, especially if you only have one or two of them. Severe dehydration is very serious and is considered a medical emergency requiring professional help.
Who is at risk?
Really, everyone is at risk for dehydration at one time or another. We most often think of athletes training or competing in the heat as the prime candidates for dehydration. But dehydration in athletes can also occur in cold weather, as they are most often still sweating, even if under layers of clothing.
Those with chronic illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes, may urinate frequently if the disease is not under control. This excessive urination can lead to dehydration. In addition, some medications can cause frequent urination so be mindful of the side effects of any medication being taken.
The elderly are at an increased risk for dehydration, as they may not realize they are thirsty and may have limited mobility, inhibiting them from drinking as frequently as they should.
Babies and young children, who are too young to speak and cannot tell a parent they are thirsty, also are at a greater risk for dehydration. They are often more susceptible to illnesses with vomiting, diarrhea and/or high fever, which can lead to dehydration very quickly.
Those who are ill with strep throat or tonsillitis or those who have mouth sores may not feel like drinking and so put themselves at risk as well.
Symptoms of dehydration
Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include thirst, not urinating or having dark yellow urine, dry mouth, dry skin, muscle cramps, and headache. Keep in mind that the muscle cramps can be anywhere, often in the legs of athletes.
Symptoms of severe dehydration are: not urinating or having dark yellow urine, rapid heartbeat, and breathing, sunken eyes, very dry skin, dizziness, fainting, sleepiness, lack of energy, confusion or irritability.
For cases of severe dehydration, seek medical help right away. Severe dehydration can quickly spiral into heat stroke, which can be fatal.
How to tell if you are dehydrated
It goes without saying that the best way to treat dehydration is to avoid it altogether by ensuring that you are properly hydrated throughout the day, particularly if you know you are going to be outside in the heat and sweating a lot.
One of the easiest ways to monitor your hydration level is to check your urine. Very light yellow to almost clear urine means that you are adequately hydrated. Dark yellow to amber colored urine means that you are dehydrated. A decrease in urine output is a sign of dehydration too so monitoring how frequently you go can be used as an indicator.
Another way to test for dehydration is to pinch the skin of the arm or the stomach between two fingers. If the skin returns to normal within three seconds, you are hydrated. If it takes longer than three seconds, you may be dehydrated.
Similarly, you can press on the nail bed when holding your hand above your heart. When you press on it, the nail bed whitens because you are forcing the blood from it. After releasing pressure, if the blood rushes back in two seconds or less, you are hydrated. Any longer than that, and you may be dehydrated
How to treat mild to moderate dehydration
By the time you feel thirsty, it is already a little too late as feeling thirsty usually lags behind the need to drink. That is why it is better to know how much you need to drink to stay properly hydrated and to keep on top of it.
If you do find yourself with symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration, drinking water is the first course of treatment. You can also use a premade drink that includes electrolytes such as Gatorade or Powerade or Pedialyte (drinks or freezer pops) for children. Coconut water and drinks that include coconut water also help rehydrate you quickly. Fruit juices diluted with water or salty soup or broth can also do the trick.
Stay away from alcohol, tea, and coffee, which are all diuretics and can worsen dehydration.
A cautionary tale
When my oldest son was in kindergarten, he vomited once on Sunday evening. Although he still didn’t feel well for the following four days, he never threw up again. I thought I was hydrating him appropriately by getting him to drink what water I could. When I finally took him to the doctor on Thursday, he was so dehydrated that the pediatrician sent me home with orders to pump him full of Gatorade or Pedialyte. At that point, his electrolytes were so out of balance that water alone wasn’t going to work.
I was scheduled to bring him back the next day and if he hadn’t improved, they were going to have to admit him to the hospital and rehydrate him intravenously. Luckily, the Gatorade worked and he had improved enough the following day to avoid the hospital.
That one bout of vomiting was enough to start the spiral into dehydration. If I had only known then what I know now!
- How Can You Tell If You’re Dehydrated?, website ,