What is acute dehydration?

Acute dehydration is the severe and rapid onset of loss of body fluids, most commonly caused by diarrheal illness. As the body loses water, electrolyte imbalances can develop. Dehydration is treated as a medical emergency and is treated by restoring fluids to the patient's body and monitoring the patient for signs of complications such as organ damage. Hospitalization may be required to stabilize the patient, depending on the cause of the dehydration and the severity of the dehydration prior to treatment.

People with diarrheal illnesses lose body fluids rapidly as a result of frequent loose stools. Acute dehydration can also be caused by not getting enough water during exercise or heavy physical work, and by some types of illness. People with acute dehydration tend to be very thirsty. Your skin and mucous membranes may feel dry and you may develop an altered level of consciousness, decreased urine output, dark urine, fatigue, and confusion.

The immediate treatment for acute dehydration is supplemental fluids. Oral and intravenous fluids can be used in the treatment of dehydration. Fluids may include salts to restore the patient's electrolytes and prevent an electrolyte imbalance caused by flooding the body with fresh fluids. In patients who continue to experience fluid loss, such as patients with diarrhoea, fluid supplementation can be continued throughout the course of the patient's illness to prevent recurrence of dehydration. Fluids can also be given prophylactically to prevent dehydration in patients at risk.

Once the patient has been stabilized with fluids, treatment of the underlying cause of dehydration can begin. In some cases, just providing fluids should solve the problem; An athlete who overworked in hot weather with little water, for example, just needs rest and fluids to recover. In other cases, patients may need antibiotics to treat gastrointestinal infections.

Blood tests may be used to check organ function, looking for damage to structures such as the liver and kidneys. Brain damage is also a possibility and once a patient is stable, a neurological evaluation can be done to look for signs of brain injury. These complications of dehydration can be treated in some cases and in others they can be permanent, requiring adjustments and accommodations for the patient. The longer a patient is allowed to remain dehydrated and the more severe the fluid deprivation, the more likely the chance of permanent physical damage as a result of acute dehydration, especially if combined with conditions such as heat stroke.

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