Better Me

Are You Experiencing Dehydration Symptoms or Just Thirsty?

Close your eyes and think back to elementary school recess.

You’re running all over the playground, swinging across monkey bars, leaping across the shaky bridge and going down a hot metal slide with your friends when suddenly your mouth feels especially dry. You run to the water fountain and sip loudly for at least 30 straight seconds before dashing back for a game of hopscotch.

Remember how refreshed you felt by those hearty gulps of water? Were you just thirsty? Or is there a chance you were dehydrated? Even as adults, it can be hard to tell the difference. And as temperatures rise every summer, the risks of dehydration climb as well.

Thirst vs. dehydration

To better understand how dehydration occurs and its symptoms, we spoke with Vivek Kesara, MD, a family medicine pediatrician at Banner Health Center in Arizona. He explained that “thirst is just a desire to drink and doesn’t come with any other ill effects. Dehydration, on the other hand, can be accompanied by many dangerous side effects.”

Signs of dehydration

You’ve probably heard the common refrain that if you feel thirsty, then you’re already dehydrated. While that may not always be true, thirst is still an important indicator that your body’s water and electrolytes may be depleting. Signs that your thirst may have progressed to dehydration include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Less-frequent urination
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dry mouth, lips, etc.
  • Lack of sweat
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Low blood pressure

If you are experiencing any of the listed dehydration symptoms, you should rehydrate quickly by drinking fluids and remove yourself from any extreme heat or strenuous exercise. Dr. Kesara warned that people experiencing mental symptoms like dizziness and confusion, or changes in their vitals like an elevated heart rate at rest or low-blood pressure, should get to an emergency department for urgent medical attention. Dehydration can be life-threatening.

When to watch for dehydration

Dehydration can happen quickly. Although our bodies are more than 50% water content, losing even a small percentage of that water weight can lead to symptoms of dehydration. It doesn’t take extreme situations to run the risk of dehydration. But there are scenarios when staying hydrated is especially vital.

Strenuous exercise – As you work out, your body can lose more than a liter per hour of water through sweat and more. Not only should you be sure to replace lost body fluids during exercise, hydrating before exercise can be just as important. Drink 20 ounces of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise, and another 20 ounces 30 minutes before.

Extreme heat – No surprise here. Everyone knows to fill their water bottles before embarking on a summer hike or heading to work at an outdoor work site in hot weather. But there are less obvious scenarios you should look out for. A sunny day at the pool or at the beach may not exactly feel “water-meager.” But even when you’re swimming, your body can quickly burn through its water reserves.

Illness – Vomiting, diarrhea and fever (high body temperature) are among the common symptoms that will cause your body to dehydrate more quickly.

Certain medications – Dr. Kesara issued a special warning to older adults and other people on prescription medications that they may be at higher risk. Laxatives, diuretics and even chemotherapy can be linked to dehydration.

Diuretic beveragesCoffee drinkers, are your ears burning (roasting)? It may be hard to imagine how drinking any liquid can contribute to dehydration, but coffee, alcohol and sugary drinks all have dehydrating properties. They should not be considered replacements for water. Always supplement them with a glass of H2O.

Healthy hydration is more than more than just water

Water is just part of the equation. Electrolytes are the minerals lost in sweat, including sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium. Among many other things, these minerals help your nerves, muscles, brain and heart to maintain normal function.

A quick gym workout may not require a sports drink or oral rehydration solution packed with electrolytes. But distance running, a long bike ride and other intense activities could leave the body depleted. Be aware that some sports drinks are packed with sugar. You can also replenish your electrolytes with healthy portions of fruit and vegetables.

For more advice on how to stay healthy and hydrated, talk with your health care provider. You can also learn more tips about hydration and exercise in these similar articles.

Sports Medicine Fitness Safety