A woman drinking a glass of water.
One of the ways to avoid severe dehydration is to make sure you're getting enough fluid intake.

Severe Dehydration Symptoms

Mild dehydration can be fixed by catching up on your fluid intake—simply drink enough water to get rehydrated. It’s easy to fix. As dehydration gets more severe, it takes more than water to help you get better. Here we’ll discuss severe dehydration symptoms and how you can avoid becoming seriously dehydrated.

What Is Severe Dehydration?

Your organs need fluid to work properly. Dehydration happens when your body loses too much fluid and can’t function normally. Fluid loss happens in several ways; you’re either not consuming enough water, or you’re losing too much water through diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, or exercise.

In lower stakes cases of dehydration, your body can borrow fluid from your blood and other tissues to tide it over until you drink more water. When you’re severely dehydrated, you can’t reabsorb fluid from the blood to service your organs.

How It Differs from Moderate Dehydration

When you lose more fluid than you take in, your body loses both water and salt (electrolytes). If fluids aren’t replaced soon enough, the dehydration process begins. Severe dehydration differs from moderate dehydration because the organs may go into shock from lack of fluid, which can cause death. Unlike mild and moderate dehydration, which can be rectified by drinking more fluids, severe dehydration requires emergency medical treatment.

Severe Dehydration Causes

There are several causes of dehydration that can diminish fluid levels in the body:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting. They can both cause you to lose an immense amount of water and electrolytes quickly. In these cases, the body isn’t holding onto much (if any) fluid, and a doctor should be consulted if symptoms persist.
  • Excessive sweating. This causes you to lose fluid through your skin. In hot, humid areas or as a result of vigorous physical activity, sweating can make you lose more water than you’re taking in.
  • High fevers. A high fever can cause you to become dehydrated. This loss of fluid is compounded if it happens along with diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Type 1 diabetes. If it is undiagnosed or uncontrolled it may cause you to lose water through increased urination.

Risk Factors for Severe Dehydration

Anyone can get severe dehydration if they’re losing an excessive amount of fluid without consuming more. Those in the most dangerous risk categories are babies, small children and older adults. In these cases, they may be unable to communicate thirst. Babies may also have episodes of gastroenteritis, where they’re not able to conserve as much water. Pay particular attention to those close to you who fall in these age categories to make sure they stay hydrated.

Other risk factors include:

  • Mobility issues that inhibit a person’s ability to get water for themselves
  • Chronic illnesses that require medication that affects urination, such as uncontrolled diabetes or kidney disease
  • Chronic illnesses that decrease awareness of what the body needs, such as dementia
  • Those who work or exercise outside when it’s hot and humid
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Symptoms of Severe Dehydration

There are many symptoms of severe dehydration, including:

  • Muscle cramps or contractions in the arms, legs, stomach and back
  • Becoming lethargic or unconscious
  • Low or unstable blood pressure
  • Convulsions
  • Bloated stomach
  • A sunken soft spot on the head (for dehydrated infants)
  • Sunken dry eyes, with few or no tears
  • Lack of skin elasticity; it looks wrinkled, and when pinched, the skin takes more than two seconds to go back where it started
  • Rapid and deep breathing
  • Lack of urine output (if any, the urine is dark)
  • Evidence of hypovolaemic shock

Complications of Severe Dehydration

As the body loses more and more fluid without replenishing it, severe complications may arise:

  • Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heatstroke
  • Swelling of the brain (cerebral edema)
  • Seizures (if electrolytes are out of balance)
  • Low blood volume shock (hypovolemic shock)
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure
  • Coma
  • Death

Treatment Options

Severe dehydration is a life-threatening issue and the affected person needs urgent care. Call 911 or take them to the emergency room immediately.

Once the patient sees a doctor, the physician will perform a quick physical exam and take blood and urine samples to make a diagnosis and determine how severe the dehydration is. The doctor will also treat any shock symptoms if present.

Immediate treatment usually involves connecting the patient to an intravenous (IV) saline drip to help the body rehydrate. An IV gets the fluid to your body faster than drinking would. During this time, your medical team will monitor your blood pressure, heart rate and keep an eye on any abnormal kidney function.

The safest way to treat dehydration is to ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place.

Dehydration Prevention Tips

In most cases, severe dehydration is preventable. Here are a few ways to make sure you stay hydrated:

  • Take in more fluids, especially in cases where you know you’re losing water (vomiting, diarrhea, sweating from exercise, you’re ill with a fever, etc.).
  • Eat more foods with high water content (fruits and vegetables).
  • Track fluid intake for infants, small children and the elderly to ensure they’re drinking enough; if they aren’t, see a doctor right away.
  • Bring extra water with you if you’re going to be out in humid and hot weather.
  • Get your diabetes under control.
  • Make sure that water is accessible for those with mobility issues.

Severe dehydration is a serious health concern. Have a rehydration plan to make sure you’re drinking enough water (and keep extra with you if you’re away from home). Consuming enough fluids throughout the day gives your body the hydration it needs to keep running smoothly.