What Is Dehydration?
Dehydration occurs when a child has too little fluid in his body. Children become easily dehydrated when they diarrhea or vomiting (which can be caused by gastroenteritis or other illnesses) because they lose more fluid and salts than they are able to take in by drinking. Babies who are younger than 6 months old become dehydrated much more quickly than older children do. Babies under 1 year need approximately 1 quart of fluid per day; children over a year old need 1 to 2 quarts of fluid per day, depending on their size. The amount increases when body fluid is lost. Having a fever can also increase the loss of fluid through the skin, thus raising the risk of dehydration.
Symptoms and Signs of Dehydration
- Lethargy, listlessness, lack of concentration, fussiness, and paleness. Your child may not want to play or be active, be prone to crying, and may just want to sleep, even if the sleep is restless.
- Thirst and dryness in the mucus membranes of the lips, tongue, and mouth. In extreme cases, dehydrated children may lose their thirst mechanism and will not want to drink at all.
- Dry skin and dark circles under the eyes appearing after a few days. The eyes can also appear slightly sunken. In infants younger than 1 year, the fontanel (the soft spot on the front top part of the head) may appear sunken in or flatter than normal.
- Less urine is passed. If the amount of urine your child excretes is less than normal, and the urine is dark and concentrated, this may be an early sign of fluid loss. In infants and toddlers, persistently dry diapers are a sign of dehydration. If your baby is younger than 6 months and produces little to no urine in 4 to 6 hours, or if your toddler produces little to no urine in 6 to 8 hours, she may be dehydrated.
- Rapid breathing and a weak but rapid pulse can indicate severe dehydration. The child will also have less awareness of his surroundings or will not be alert. His lips and mouth will look very dry and the skin may be doughy and wrinkled. Call 911 immediately if you notice these signs.
Treatment for Dehydration
Give your child plenty to drink, but in small amounts. If your child is vomiting, wait 30 to 60 minutes after an episode of vomiting before giving him anything to drink. Give him a teaspoonful of fluid or a little sip every 2 to 3 minutes.
Children who are being breastfed can continue taking breast milk, but should be breastfed more often than normal (every 1 to 2 hours) and given smaller amounts (5 to 10 minutes at a time). You can also pump and give the child milk by spoon, cup, or bottle. Infants who are on formula can continue taking regular, full-strength formula.
In addition to breast milk and formula, you can give your infant one of several specially prepared oral rehydration solutions (Pedialyte, Ricelyte, or Kao Lectrolyte). These oral rehydration solutions (ORS) help to replace the fluids and salts lost through diarrhea and vomiting, and they're available in a variety of flavors at a local drugstore or supermarket. Be careful when giving plain water or watered-down juice, breast milk, formula, or electrolyte solution to a baby less than 1 year old because this could create dangerous imbalances. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment.
Older children can be given frozen popsicles made from the oral rehydration solutions above. If your child is older than 6 months and does not like the taste of plain (or unflavored) Pedialyte, add half a teaspoonful of apple juice to each dose. If a child has diarrhea, do not give her fruit juices or soft drinks because they have a high sugar content that can make the diarrhea worse. If the child is vomiting, but doesn't have diarrhea, she may drink small amounts of clear fluids.
Carefully monitor your child's urine output, and always contact the doctor with any concerns.
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