Dehydration Symptoms and Treatment

If your child shows signs of dehydration, make sure to give small amounts of water.

What Is Dehydration?

Dehydration can occur in anyone but is most common in young children and happens when a child has not had enough fluid and salt for their body to run properly. The most common cause of dehydration in children is diarrhea or vomiting, which can quickly deplete the body of necessary fluids.

Dehydration affects anyone based on age, amount of exertion such as vigorous exercise, and illness such as flu or gastroenteritis. This is why is important to stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day, especially if your child is engaged in physical activity or has a fever or illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies under 6 months who are breastfed not drink water as breastmilk is 80% water. Adding water to their feeding can cause diarrhea and malnutrition.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids drink an appropriate amount of water each day to stay healthy. It is best to avoid soft drinks and juice and to choose water whenever possible. Here is the approximate amount of fluid your child needs every day.

  • Babies under 6 months continue with breast or bottle feeding.
  • Babies 6 months to a year old can have 4-8 ounces of water daily.
  • Children 1 year to 3 years old need 4 cups of water or milk each day.
  • Children 4 to 8 years old need 5 cups of water or fluids each day.
  • Children older than 8 need 7 to 8 cups of fluids each day.

Since the body can lose fluids quickly and easily while fighting a fever or illness, it is important to check with your doctor about the appropriate amounts of fluids to give your child to prevent dehydration.

Symptoms and Signs of Dehydration

  • Loss of energy: 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: 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.
  • Sunken eyes: Dry skin and dark circles under the eyes appear 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.
  • Dry diapers: 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, they may be dehydrated.
  • Changes in breathing: 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

Depending on what is causing dehydration, there are different approaches to treat mild symptoms. Seek medical attention if your child has had a dry diaper for 8 hours, is lethargic, or has vomiting or diarrhea that is getting worse and not better.

Water and popsicles

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 them anything to drink. Give them a teaspoonful of fluid or a little sip every 2 to 3 minutes.

Popsicles are a great way to get fluids in your child at an even pace so as not to further upset their stomach. For babies around 6 months or older, try putting a popsicle or ice cube in a mesh teether to prevent choking. Look for popsicles with low sugar content since sugar can contribute to vomiting.

Older children can be given frozen popsicles made from the oral rehydration solutions (see below). 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 them fruit juices or soft drinks because they have a high sugar content that can make diarrhea worse. If the child is vomiting but doesn't have diarrhea, they may drink small amounts of clear fluids.

Breastfeeding and formula

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.

Oral rehydration solutions

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.

Carefully monitor your child's urine output, and always contact the doctor with any concerns.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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