Dehydration occurs when the body has insufficient water to function properly. While mild dehydration may be just uncomfortable, more severe dehydration can lead to blood clots, seizures, and other potentially fatal complications.
Clearly, severe dehydration must be treated promptly, but even mild dehydration can have adverse effects on mood and energy. It’s important to catch any degree of dehydration early, but the signs of dehydration aren’t always obvious ones like thirst and fatigue.
Here are six surprising signs and symptoms of dehydration.
1. Bad Breath
Saliva has antibacterial properties, but dehydration can prevent your body from making enough saliva.
“If you’re not producing enough saliva, you can get bacteria overgrowth in the mouth, and one of the side effects of that is bad breath,” says John Higgins, MD, an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Texas in Houston and the chief of cardiology at Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital in Houston.
2. Dry Skin
“A lot of people think that people who get dehydrated are really sweaty, but in fact, as you go through various stages of dehydration, you get very dry skin,” Dr. Higgins says, adding that skin may appear flushed as well.
When pinched, the skin of a dehydrated person may remain “tented” and take some time to return to its normal, flat appearance.
3. Muscle Cramps
Dehydration is only one potential cause of muscle cramps, but it’s one worth considering if you get cramps while exercising, particularly in hot weather.
“The hotter you get, the more likely you are to get muscle cramps, and that’s from a pure heat effect on the muscles. As the muscles work harder and harder, they can seize up from the heat itself. Changes in the electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, can lead to muscle cramping as well,” says Higgins.
Even in cooler weather, dehydration is possible if you don’t drink enough fluids while working out. According to Higgins, symptoms may be milder or come on slower, but dehydration carries the same risks, regardless of the outside temperature.
4. Fever and Chills
If your body is severely dehydrated you may experience fever and chills. Fever, in turn, can worsen dehydration, and the higher the fever, the more dehydrated you may become.
In infants, so-called dehydration fever may develop if there is inadequate fluid intake, diarrhea, or vomiting. Any fever in an infant or toddler is cause for concern. Ask your pediatrician for guidelines on when to call for help.
Adults with fever should seek medical help if their temperature reaches 103°F.
5. Food Cravings, Especially for Sweets
“When you’re dehydrated, it can be difficult for organs like the liver, which uses water, to release glycogen [stored glucose] and other components of your energy stores, so you can actually get cravings for food,” Higgins says.
While you can crave anything from chocolate to a salty snack, cravings for sweets are more common because your body may be experiencing difficulty breaking down glycogen to release glucose into the bloodstream to use as fuel, he says.
It’s also not uncommon for the body to confuse the feeling of thirst with hunger, meaning that you may feel hungry when all you really need is water.
Even mild dehydration can cause a dehydration headache and even trigger a migraine headache. Since it’s often not clear what is causing a headache, drinking a full glass of water and continuing to sip more fluids during the day is an easy way to ease your pain if, in fact, dehydration is contributing to it.
How to Tell if You’re Dehydrated
If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. But lack of thirst doesn’t necessarily mean you’re well hydrated. Here are two other ways to check whether your body is dehydrated:
Try this skin test. Use two fingers to pinch up some skin on the back of your hand, then let the skin go. The skin should spring back to its normal position in less than a couple of seconds. Higgins says that if the skin returns to normal more slowly, you might be dehydrated.
Check your urine. If you’re well-hydrated, your urine will be mostly clear with a tinge of yellow (the color of light lemonade before it hits the bowl). Darker yellow or orange are the “warning” colors to watch for. If you see those colors, start drinking fluids.
Tips for Staying Hydrated
When it comes to daily water intake, the Institute of Medicine recommends that most women get about 2.7 liters of water a day (or about 12 cups), and most men get about 3.7 liters a day (or about 15 cups). Those totals include water gained from foods and beverages like tea, milk, and fruit juice.
Here are some tips for getting all the fluids you need and avoiding dehydration:
Keep your water bottle handy. “If it's right next to you, you'll likely get into the habit of sipping it without even realizing it,” says the nutrition expert and Everyday Health columnist Johannah Sakimura.
Spice up plain water. “If you don't love plain water, jazz it up by adding a splash of fruit juice or chunks of fresh or frozen fruit,” says Sakimura. “Or try naturally flavored, calorie-free seltzers — their fizz and fruit flavor makes them more appealing than plain, flat water.”
Try different teas. Sakimura recommends drinking unsweetened teas, which are available in lots of different flavors. “Sip fruity iced teas during the day (with lots of ice if it's hot out), or cozy up with a mug of hot peppermint or chamomile tea at night — they all count toward your daily fluid goal.”
Makeover your snacks. “Swap dry snacks like chips, pretzels, and crackers — which have a very low water content — with refreshing munchies like fresh or frozen fruit, yogurt, healthy smoothies, celery with peanut butter, and cut veggies with hummus,” recommends Sakimura.
Pile on the produce. “Aim to make half your plate produce at meals. All those vegetable and fruit servings will supply water as well as a hearty dose of vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Sakimura.
“In fact, some fruits and vegetables are more than 90 percent water — including cantaloupe, strawberries, watermelon (of course), cucumber, celery, lettuce and leafy greens, zucchini, tomatoes, and bell peppers,” Sakimura says.
Sip more during meals. “Sipping water with meals will help you eat more slowly, pace your eating, and, of course, stay hydrated,” Sakimura says.
Dehydration in the Elderly
Elderly people may be at higher risk for dehydration for a number of reasons.
Some elderly people become chronically dehydrated if they take certain medications such as diuretics, have a diminished sense of thirst, are not able to get themselves a glass of water easily or forget to drink because of dementia. Chronic dehydration in an elderly person may lead to confusion, low blood pressure, dizziness, and constipation.
If you have an elderly relative with mobility limitations or cognitive problems, be sure to monitor them for signs of dehydration or ask their caregivers to do so.