Dehydration is a condition brought about by a lack of adequate water in the body. If the shortage of water is severe, this can be a critical medical situation due to the critical role played by water in our blood vessels and bodily cells.
Dehydration can potentially affect individuals in any situation. Losing as little as 1.5% of the normal amount of water in the body can cause its symptoms (discussed below) to appear.
This means that many individuals who do not regularly engage in athletic activity can nevertheless be dehydrated.
However, athletes are probably more susceptible to this condition than people who do not regularly participate in sports. The body tends to lose fluid more rapidly during physical activity. This fluid needs to be replaced in order to maintain athletic conditioning and avoid a drop in performance level.
As a result, during periods of physical exertion, the body’s cells require more water in order to continue functioning properly. This means that dehydration is a factor that has a significant impact on athletic conditioning.
In this article, we will consider the importance of water to the body. We will then discuss dehydration as a sports “injury” and look at its key symptoms. We will also look at ways to treat and avoid this potentially debilitating medical problem.
Why Is Water Critical To The Body?
Water comprises approximately 55% to 78% of the human body. Critical organs such as the brain and heart are largely made up of water – in those two, about 73% each. The same is true of other important organs such as the skin, kidneys and lungs.
Water plays several important roles in bodily functions. These include (among many other roles);
It supports the digestive system and helps remove waste materials from the body;
It lubricates the joints;
It helps supply the entire body with oxygen – another critical element to maintaining life; and
It helps your body maintain the correct temperature; and
It helps cushion important parts of the central nervous system, such as the brain and spinal cord, from external shocks.
Water is even more important for athletes in hot weather as its role in maintaining correct body temperature is even more critical.
Athletes or other active individuals use more water than normal in warm temperatures. As they sweat (a part of the body’s temperature regulation process) the body loses its water content. If that fluid loss is not replaced, it will not be available to help carry out the other functions mentioned above.
As a result, maintaining appropriate levels of hydration becomes even more important for athletes or other physically active individuals.
It will be evident from the above that water plays key roles in sustaining many key bodily functions.As a result, at extreme levels, dehydration can be viewed as a potentially life threatening condition.
For an athlete, even mild dehydration can cause a noticeable deterioration in sports performance. For them, maintaining adequate fluid intake while competing or training is critical to maintaining a high performance level.
Dehydration Risk Factors
There are a number of factors that can increase your risk of dehydration. These include:
A high level of physical activity, for the reasons mentioned above;
Infants or young children may be unable to understand when they are experiencing the symptoms of dehydration. They may also be unable to communicate the problem to those around them; and
Older adults are also at higher risk, as their bodies may not be able to effectively communicate the signs of dehydration to them;
Dehydration occurs even more frequently among elderly individuals with medical conditions that increase the risk of urinary tract infections. These individuals may tend to reduce the amount of liquids they consume. They may do so to reduce the amount of urination they need to do. That in turn increases the risk of dehydration; and
Individuals taking diuretic medications (frequently done to treat high blood pressure) may experience higher levels of urination than other people. Consequently, they must be even more vigilant to maintain a high water intake level.
Based on the above discussion of dehydration risk factors, it will be clear that it is important to be able to recognize its signs. Doing so is an important part of being able to proactively avoid the condition.
The symptoms of dehydration include:
Fatigue and/or exhaustion;
Delirium and/or confusion;
Feeling dizzy or light headed;
A persistently dry mouth or a nagging dry cough;
A higher than normal heart rate accompanied by a blood pressure that is lower than normal. This is usually a late sign, since the fluid deficit in the body needs to be considerable before it causes the blood pressure to fall:
Although shortness of breath is not necessarily a dehydration symptom, the two tend to occur together. They are both caused by intense physical exertions in hot weather.
The most important symptom of dehydration is the one provided naturally by your body – thirst. It is one of the earliest symptoms developed by the body, since it is caused by relatively small deficits or losses of fluid in the body.
However, doctors can also detect the condition via lab tests. These tests would include:
Urine tests to measure sodium concentration. However, this is not a test that is frequently done in clinical practice;
Blood tests to check urea nitrogen levels and creatinine levels
In the majority of cases of dehydration, doctors rely on clinical signs rather than laboratory tests to diagnose the condition.
Treatment Of Dehydration
Although dehydration can be a serious condition, it can be very easily treated- usually by drinking enough water to replace the deficit of fluid.
Oral rehydration solutions made from powders mixed in with water can be used to treat dehydration if it has progressed beyond a mild stage.
For athletes, drinking fluids is even more important during competition or training. For this reason, a variety of sports drinks is available on the market to help prevent dehydration amongst athletes.
Beyond athletes, dehydration can be avoided by adopting the following habits:
Drinking water frequently throughout the day – ideally about 8 to 10 glasses;
Limiting the intake of alcohol or coffee as these both increase the risk of dehydration;
Reduce your salt intake, as this too can increase the risk of dehydration.