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How to spot the symptoms of dehydration, according to experts

Deadly heatwave scorches South
Deadly heatwave scorches South and Southwest 03:08

In sweltering summer temperatures, hydration is key to keeping your body healthy. Experts say there are signs to look for to know if you're not getting enough water.

"Your body needs to be properly hydrated to function at its best," explains Dr. Phillip Davis, medical advisory board physician for ShineWater and former FDA physician. "By avoiding dehydration and staying properly hydrated, it allows you to regulate your body temperature best, prevent infection, deliver nutrients to cells and will even result in improved sleep quality."

But how do you know if you're dehydrated? 

First, it's important to understand the difference between dehydration and thirst. 

"Being thirsty is sensation that your body creates to tell you that it's time to drink water, but I don't want that to be confused with actually being dehydrated. Being dehydrated is a lot more severe and does have some classic signs and symptoms," Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, a family physician with membership-based primary care practice One Medical, explains.

Those signs may include dry mouth and dry or cracked lips, she says — but it doesn't stop there.

Although people often use the terms "thirsty" and "dehydrated" interchangeably, the latter is an actual condition that can have serious consequences.

"If we don't (drink adequate fluids) or if we are losing too much water from our body, then the clinical condition of dehydration can occur," Davis says. "There are a number of causes of dehydration including not enough water intake or excessive sweating and high activity during warm weather, as well as too much salt, GI (gastrointestinal) viruses and conditions like diabetes."

Early signs you need to increase your water intake include:

  • Decreased or darker-colored urine output
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

"If you begin feeling any of these symptoms, especially while outdoors in the summer heat, it's important to rehydrate your body," Davis says.

There are degrees of dehydration, Davis explains. When it becomes more extreme, he says it can become a dangerous situation marked by:

  • Abnormal breathing
  • High pulse rate
  • Lethargy
  • Low blood pressure 

"Anyone experiencing these concerning symptoms should seek immediate medical attention," he says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dehydration is a primary contributor to heat exhaustion, a dangerous heat-related illness that can lead to life-threatening heat stroke

The CDC advises drinking water before feeling thirsty. 

"By the time you feel thirsty, you are already behind in fluid replacement," the CDC notes on its website. If you're out working in the heat, the agency recommends drinking 8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes, which adds up to about a quart per hour.

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