Dehydration can be serious, but easily prevented

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Glastonbury - posted Fri., Apr. 26, 2013
Registered nurse Joanne Foss of Aging Care, LLC, spoke about dehydration at the Riverfront Community Center in Glastonbury on April 25. Photos by Steve Smith.
Registered nurse Joanne Foss of Aging Care, LLC, spoke about dehydration at the Riverfront Community Center in Glastonbury on April 25. Photos by Steve Smith.

Dehydration can be serious, especially for athletes, older people, and children; and the risk rises in the summer when temperatures cause people to sweat more. Fortunately, according to Joanne Foss – a nurse and Geriatric Care Manager at Aging Care, LLC – dehydration is easily preventable.

“Dehydration can be a scary thing,” Foss said. “The good thing is it's avoidable.”

Foss said that dehydration is one of the leading reasons for emergency room visits and hospitalization for older people. Hydration is the term used to describe the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body, and it affects the very young and older folks, as well as athletes of all ages, Foss said.

“People often forget about hydration,” she said, adding that while most people realize that water comprises 75-percent of the human body, most people don't realize all of the ways in which the adequate amount of fluid helps the body. “It regulates body temperature, maintains blood pressure, and maintains joint and skin health,” she said.

Normally, when the body needs water, it sends a message to the brain to drink. When the body has too much water, it sends a message to the kidneys to get rid of it. While that seems simple enough, there is more to that equation.

Things are different for older people for a number of reasons. For one, Foss said, the messages between body and brain don't get delivered as easily, and that balance is more difficult to maintain. As people age, (and sometimes with younger people too) they can develop a “blunted thirst response.”

“We don't feel thirsty like we used to,” she said. “We don't acknowledge it the same.”

Second, kidney function isn't the same, and more fluid than the body needs at a given moment can be released, which can also lead to dehydration. Many medications – which older people tend to use more of – are diuretics, which cause the body to get rid of more fluid. Sometimes, older people also drink less water because they want to avoid incontinence.

Salt levels in the body are also important. “If you have too much salt in your body, you are going to hold onto too much water,” Foss said. “If you don't have enough salt, you can't hold water.” She used the example of athletes or marathon runners. “If they only drank water, they would never make it the 26.2 miles. They need electrolytes – potassium and especially sodium – to hold that water in their bodies and keep them balanced and stable.”

Symptoms of dehydration can include falling – either via fainting or dizziness or without. Dry lips and skin are other signs. “Sometimes a doctor will take a look at the oral cavity to see if someone is dehydrated,” Foss said, adding that decreased saliva is another related symptom.

Fever and urinary tract infections can also be the result of dehydration.

A skin test is an easy way to check for dehydration. Pulling up the skin on the back of one's hand – if it stays “tented” or doesn't go back into place quickly – it could likely mean the person is on the low end of well-balanced hydration.

Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks should be taken in moderation, as caffeine is a diuretic. “Even decaffeinated coffee has some caffeine in it, so you have to be careful with that,” she said. “Avoiding the caffeinated drinks is ideal.”

Also, one should avoid laxatives, which cause the body to release too much fluid.

Prevention includes drinking plenty of water. Foss said six to eight glasses daily is recommended. One should also not wait until they are thirsty to drink water. Each person needs to establish patterns that work for them.

“Determine what's best for you,” she said, adding that setting a goal for how much water a person needs to drink and when it will be most convenient to do that makes the goal more achievable.

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