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The Dangers of Dehydration

I used to coach a fast pitch club softball team. During the summer, we’d travel to tournaments where we’d play two to five 7-inning games every day. While these tournaments were always tons of fun (all softball, all day, right?!), dehydration was a constant threat. Sweat, heat, lack of shade, exercise – the other coaches and I had to constantly monitor not only the players but also ourselves for signs that we needed more fluids. I’m thankful we never had anyone become dangerously dehydrated, but there were a few close calls.

The human body is approximately 70% water (this figure is greater for babies and kids, less for adults). Water is crucial for every bodily function. It allows cells to function and blood to flow. In a nutshell, dehydration is when your body loses fluid faster than it’s replenished. This can happen many ways. We lose fluid through sweat, urination, vomiting, diarrhea, and even breathing (moisture enables you to “see your breath” on a cold day).

For normal, healthy adults, this fluid loss is not a problem. We let thirst act as our guide and receive adequate fluids through what we drink and eat. But dehydration is a bigger threat for those who are sick (they may not want to drink or may not be able to keep fluids down), the elderly and burn victims (whose bodies have less effective temperature control), infants and children (who have a higher fluid turnover rate), diabetics (who urinate more frequently), and athletes (who can accumulate a fluid debt through exercise). Therefore it’s important to understand the dangers, symptoms, and treatment of dehydration.

While people with very mild dehydration may have nothing more than a headache and slight irritability, the symptoms of dehydration quickly get scary. As dehydration progresses, the person may experience dry mouth, little or no urination, lost tear and sweat production, cramps, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sunken eyes, lethargy, heat illness, kidney failure, confusion, hallucinations, shock, seizures, even a coma. And considering that only two or three days without fluid intake can be enough to cause death, dehydration is not something to mess around with.

As with many things, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to dehydration. Most of us will be fine simply drinking when we feel thirsty, but there are a few guidelines worth following for optimal hydration, especially in hot summer temperatures:

• Stick with water or a low calorie sports drink. Avoid drinks that have a diuretic effect, such as tea, coffee, and alcohol.
• You can get a lot of liquid from the foods you eat. Fruits (such as watermelon) and vegetables (such as cucumber) have high water content and are very hydrating. Also broth-based soups, popsicles, and Jell-O are a good choice (just be sure to watch your sugar intake).
• If you’re sweating a great deal (from exercise or simply from the heat), be sure to replenish your body’s electrolyte content (sodium, potassium, and chloride) with sports drink, an electrolyte drink (such as Pedialyte), or a snack (such as a banana with a small handful of salted nuts).
• The human body can only absorb a certain quantity of fluid at a time, so it’s better to drink smaller amounts regularly than try to gulp a bunch of fluid all at once.
• Pre-hydrate. A common saying in athletics is, “If you feel thirsty, it’s already too late,” meaning your performance is already negatively affected. If you know that you’ll be exercising or be spending time in hot weather, start the hydration process early rather than waiting until you feel thirsty.

Contact your doctor if you have questions about the fluid intake of an at-risk loved one, and seek emergency medical attention if they exhibit any signs of moderate or severe dehydration.

Stay hydrated and healthy so you can enjoy summer to the fullest! Keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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