Dehydration can happen quickly at any time, but it’s particularly common on hot, sunny days. It occurs when your body loses more water than you consume in a day. While staying hydrated is important for everyone, it is especially important for the older population. People over 65 are more susceptible to dehydration, as it can occur more quickly and pose more significant health risks. Mild dehydration can cause dizziness, increasing the risk of falls, while severe dehydration can lead to more serious symptoms, including seizures.

Over 30% of elderly adults admitted to the hospital are dehydrated. Proper hydration is essential for maintaining good health, and being aware of dehydration's risks, causes, and symptoms can help you avoid unhealthy situations.

Risks of dehydration for the elderly

The risks of dehydration increase as we age due to the changes in our bodies and even some medications. Certain medications require proper hydration to work effectively. Dehydration can also lead to serious health conditions, including: 

  • Kidney stones

  • Acute kidney failure

  • Heat stroke

  • Dizziness or passing out

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Hypovolemic shock

It's important to take note of the causes and symptoms of dehydration to avoid these conditions and a visit to the emergency room.

Causes of dehydration

Several factors can cause dehydration. Simply not drinking enough water throughout the day can lead to a state of chronic dehydration. Certain medications, such as diuretics, often also cause dehydration. 

Certain health conditions sometimes cause adults to adopt behaviors that increase the risk of dehydration. For instance, some older adults limit fluid intake to minimize incontinent episodes, while others with mobility issues may consume less fluid due to the physical challenge of accessing the bathroom.

Other causes of dehydration can be sudden and rapidly lead to dehydration. Illnesses that cause persistent vomiting and diarrhea can lead to significant fluid loss resulting in acute dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Sweating and heat exposure can cause dehydration in a short time. These critical fluid losses can result in severe dehydration and may require hospitalization for proper treatment. 

Symptoms of dehydration for the elderly

Symptoms of dehydration vary based on severity. Mild dehydration symptoms often go unnoticed, which can lead to further dehydration.

Symptoms of mild dehydration include

  • Dry mouth

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

  • Dark urine

  • Headache

  • Feeling weak

  • Muscle cramps

  • Sleepiness

Symptoms of severe dehydration are more obvious and should be treated immediately. 

Severe dehydration symptoms include:

  • Low blood pressure

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty walking

  • Fast, weak pulse

  • Loss of skin elasticity

  • Severe muscle cramps

  • Convulsions

You can test skin elasticity by pinching the skin on the back of your hand. If it returns to its normal state quickly, you are well hydrated. If it remains tented, you are already dehydrated. If any symptoms of severe dehydration occur, call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest emergency room. 

Treating dehydration

Treatment for dehydration varies depending on the severity of fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance. You can treat mild dehydration at home by drinking more water over several hours or using a rehydration solution. Your specific level of health and the medications you take daily can change your rehydration approach. It's essential to talk to your healthcare provider about the most appropriate at-home rehydration regimen for you. 

Severe dehydration requires treatment with IV fluid. IV treatment is provided in hospitals, where healthcare providers can monitor your vital signs and do frequent lab work to ensure a return to proper hydration status while avoiding electrolyte imbalance. IV hydration can reverse acute kidney injury and prevent further complications from dehydration.

Preventing dehydration

Preventing dehydration can be simple, but you have to stay aware of your daily intake of fluid. Drinking an appropriate amount of water throughout the day is essential. The exact amount of water you need depends on personal factors, including your age, weight, overall health, medications, and diet, as well as external factors like heat. The standard rule of thumb is to drink eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of water daily, but it is best to talk with your healthcare provider to determine the right amount of fluid for you.

Avoiding dehydrating substances is also essential to preventing dehydration. Caffeine and alcohol can both lead to dehydration. Fruit juices and other sweet drinks with a lot of sugar can cause stomach upset, making them a poor choice for hydration. 

If incontinence or mobility problems make you want to reduce your fluid intake, speak with your healthcare provider or caregiver about plans to improve your hydration. Assistance may include starting a bladder training program or utilizing medical equipment such as a bedside commode or urinal. 

Maintaining proper hydration is essential to your overall health. Watching for signs and symptoms of mild dehydration will help to alert you to your hydration status and prevent further dehydration and more severe health issues. If you find dehydration is a consistent problem, speak with your healthcare provider for specific advice on your hydration needs. 

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