No one ever wants to find themselves praying to the porcelain god—especially when it involves diarrhea, vomiting or a combination of both. But, at some time or another, we will probably find ourselves in this situation—whether it’s food poisoning, the stomach bug or even morning sickness.
While vomiting (throwing up) and diarrhea are common, they can also be harmful as they can quickly lead to dehydration.
What is dehydration?
Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in. Our bodies may be made up of two-thirds water, but a loss of just a little bit of water can have adverse effects. In fact, water plays a crucial role in normal body functions and is essential to human life.
“Unlike camels, humans can’t go very long without water,” said Daniel Bates, MD, physician lead at Banner Urgent Care. “We continually need water to support biologic functions and health—helping us eliminate toxins, digest food and maintain body temperature. It doesn’t take losing too much until you are in a place where your body will start making sacrifices to compensate.”
Signs and symptoms of dehydration
Vomiting and diarrhea are usually considered symptoms themselves, but the main result for both is dehydration. The hard part is that you may not notice the symptoms of dehydration until you’re already dehydrated, and some of the symptoms may vary by age. Catching it early is key to proper treatment and prevention of a more serious case that could be life-threatening—especially for children and older adults.
Here is what you should look for:
For all age groups
- Dry, sticky, tacky-like lips and mouth
- Dry mucous membranes
- Skin that isn’t as elastic or springy
- Change in circulation; pale, cold hands and feet
- Dark-colored urine
In infants and children
- No wet diapers in greater than 12 hours
- Warm or feverish
- Few or no tears when crying
- Eyes look sunken
- Sleepy or dizzy
To learn more about preventing dehydration in infants and children, check out these tips.
- Less frequent urination
- Exhaustion or dizziness
- Sunken eyes
- Dizziness and confusion
- Low blood pressure
To learn more about preventing dehydration in vulnerable senior populations, check out these tips.
How to prevent dehydration
The best way to avoid fluid loss, no matter which end you are losing it from, is to prevent dehydration in the first place. Here are five tips to help.
1. Sip a little bit of water at a time, but often
Don’t chug a bunch of water, especially if you are throwing up, or you might just end up back in the bathroom.
“This is especially important for those who are throwing up, because you don’t want to cause a trampoline effect,” Dr. Bates said. “Drinking too much too soon can cause the stomach to stretch out and then bounce those fluids right back out.”
Instead, take small sips of water every 10 minutes. If you notice you can tolerate it, slowly increase to every few minutes. It doesn’t take a lot of volume to hydrate.
2. Make sure fluids are tepid (meaning room temperature)
Just like a cold ice cube on your skin can be a real shock, so can cold water to your stomach. Your stomach is already sensitive, so ice won’t cool that fire. Aim for room temperature fluids.
3. Try oral rehydration solutions (ORS) or coconut water
Your body uses electrolytes, like sodium, calcium and potassium, to move water through your body. In normal function, you remove them through sweat and normal bathroom habits, but when you throw up or have diarrhea, your electrolytes levels can get especially low. A couple ways to help replenish them are by drinking a special liquid called oral hydration solution (ORS) or coconut water.
ORS contains the right mix of salt, sugar and potassium and other nutrients to help replace lost body fluids. Pedialyte and DripDrop are a couple of ORS products that you can find in many grocery stores and drugstores without prescription. Some people reach for sports drinks like Gatorade, but you may want to rethink it. These drinks often have a lot of sugar in them and can make diarrhea worse.
Coconut water may not be your jam, but the water in this nut could help. “It’s the closest natural liquid in terms of matching the concentration of electrolytes that are inside our bodies,” Dr. Bates said. “Coconut water has no added sugar too, so it’s a good alternative to sports drinks.”
4. If you can hold foods down, stick to BRAT foods
If you are able to eat and hold food down or have an appetite, don’t run on out to In-N-Out. Stick to BRAT foods (Bananas, rice, applesauce and toast), as these foods are gentle on the tummy. Other bland foods include crackers and oatmeal. Avoid greasy food, caffeine, dairy and artificial sweeteners.
5. Talk to your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications
Before you reach for the Dramamine or another over-the-counter antiemetic medication, talk to your doctor first. Some medications can cause negative interactions with many different drugs or may not be appropriate for those with certain medical conditions.
When to seek help for dehydration
Most nausea, vomiting and diarrhea should resolve within 3 to 5 days, however, see a physician for any of the following symptoms:
- Signs of dehydration (see above symptoms)
- A fever (over 101°F) accompanied with nausea, diarrhea and vomiting
- Persistent diarrhea for more than 3 days
- Persistent vomiting for more than 48 hours
- Blood in your diarrhea or vomit
- Significant stomach pain that doesn’t go away
- Unable to keep any fluids down
- Confusion or decreased alertness
- Lethargic or sluggish
- No urination or wet diaper in 12 hours
Your doctor can help guide you to the best course of action based on your accompanied symptoms. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com or find a Banner Urgent Care near you.
However, if you’re experiencing severe dehydration, call 911 or get to your nearest emergency department. For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information, you can call the Banner Nurse Now line at 844-259-9494. You can also try the Banner Health Online Symptom Checker to learn what type of care you need.