Dehydration in Kids

Water is an important part of our body and is used in a lot of different ways. Your body is about 50-70% water and it’s used to keep your temperature normal, get rid of toxins, and it helps to keep your joints and tissues healthy and protected. When your body doesn’t have enough water, you become dehydrated. You may also lose electrolytes when you are dehydrated – which are essential nutrients in your blood such as sodium and potassium.  

Dehydration can range from mild to severe. Mild dehydration can usually be treated at home by resting and drinking more fluids. However, it’s critical to address mild dehydration so that it does not turn into severe dehydration. So even if your child is mildly dehydrated, you want to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t need medical care.  

Dehydration can look a bit different for everyone, so let’s take a closer look at some common questions people may ask about dehydration – especially when caring for children.  

What can cause dehydration?  

Your body can lose water in different ways. The most common causes are children throwing up (or vomiting) and diarrhea. Children can also become dehydrated and develop a heat illness from not drinking enough water when it’s hot outside and they are active, or when they don’t want to drink water because of an illness like a sore throat. Babies can become dehydrated if they are having trouble feeding.  

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in kids

Signs of dehydration can be different depending on the severity. Besides being thirsty, mild or moderate dehydration in children can look like: 

  • Dry mouth and lips 
  • Don’t have many tears when crying 
  • They aren’t going to the bathroom as much – or don’t have as many wet diapers 
  • Eyes look sunken
  • In an infant – the soft spot on the top of the head is sunken
  • Being cranky or irritable  

If the dehydration is severe, you may see signs like:  

  • Being very tired or lethargic 
  • Rapid or quick breathing 
  • No tears when they are crying 
  • Dizziness or can’t stand up 
  • Haven't gone to the bathroom in over 12 hours 
  • Passing out

Call 911 if you see signs of severe dehydration.

Can dehydration be dangerous?  

Yes, severe dehydration can be very dangerous to children and adults. It could lead to a seizure, brain damage, or even death.   

How do you treat dehydration?  

Typically, you can treat mild or moderate dehydration at home. If your child is over 1 year old and has mild or moderate dehydration, the best treatment is to give them extra fluids. Some options may be to give them:  

  • Water or ice chips
  • An oral rehydration solution (ORS) – these are drinks made with specific amounts of water, sugar, and salt to replace any electrolytes your child may have lost. These can be found at your local drugstore or grocery store. Some brands include Pedialyte® or Enfalyte® -- but you may also find a store brand  
  • Your child’s doctor may have recipes for a homemade ORS. 
  • If your child is older, they could have an electrolyte ice pop (Pedialyte® makes some, for example).
  • Clear soups or broth 
  • For older children – gelatin snacks like Jell-O™ 

If your child is an infant under 1-year-old you should contact your child’s pediatrician to talk about the best way to rehydrate them, or if you should bring them to the office to be seen.  

When should I call my child’s doctor?  

If your child is showing any symptoms of dehydration above, you should call their pediatrician to talk about the best course of action. Ideally you want to catch dehydration when it is mild so that you can treat it at home. If you see any of the following, you should get medical help right away:  

  • Your child isn’t drinking anything for over a few hours.
  • Your infant hasn’t drunk breastmilk or formula in 24 hours.
  • Their signs of dehydration haven’t gotten better (dry mouth, less wet diapers, etc.).
  • Their vomit is bright green, red, or brown.
  • They haven’t started eating food in about 3 days.

How can I help prevent my child from becoming dehydrated?  

Just as you care for yourself to make sure you don’t become dehydrated, the same goes for your child.  

  • Make sure your child gets extra fluids if they get sick.  
  • Give them small sips every few minutes if they have been vomiting.  
  • Make sure they have plenty of water if they are playing outside in hot weather.  
  • Avoid drinks that have a lot of sugar or caffeine.  
  • Serve water at meals. 
  • Carry a water bottle around with you (or have your child carry one in their backpack if they are older). 
  • Consider a double-insulated metal water bottle that keeps the water colder for longer.  

If you are worried about your child getting enough water, talk to your child’s doctor or healthcare team. You can also schedule an appointment with a Lurie Children’s specialist to help you and your child.   

Lurie Children’s prides itself on being a reliable source of information on your child’s health and wellbeing — and the Sarah and Peer Pedersen Family Learning Center (PFLC) is here to help with that mission. Visit us online or on the 12th floor of the main hospital for more information on health topics like this one!  

Sources

1. Anzilotti, A.W. “Dehydration.” KidsHealth. March 2020. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/dehydration.html.
2.
“Dehydration.” Mayo Clinic. 21 Oct 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dehydration/symptoms-causes/syc-20354086 
3.
“Dehydration.” MedlinePlus. 29 May 2019. https://medlineplus.gov/dehydration.html. 
4. Raab, C.P. “Dehydration in Children.” Merck Manual. Feb 2023. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/children-s-health-issues/miscellaneous-disorders-in-infants-and-young-children/dehydration-in-children 
5. “Treating Dehydration in Children Under 12 Years Old.” WebMD. 04 Nov 2021. https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/dehydration-in-children-treatment. 
6. “Water and Healthier Drinks.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 6 Jun 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/water-and-healthier-drinks.html. 
7. “Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day.” Mayo Clinic. 12 Oct 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256  

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