Your body needs water for every function it performs. Dehydration is the term for your body’s reaction when you don’t drink enough water, resulting in a fluid deficiency. Chronic dehydration is a condition when dehydration recurs for longer periods, sometimes regardless of how much fluid you take in on a particular day.
Most people are prone to acute dehydration under certain circumstances, such as extreme heat exposure or prolonged physical activity. Cases of typical dehydration can be resolved by resting and drinking water.
But chronic dehydration passes the point of simply using more fluid than you take in. Instead, it becomes an ongoing issue where you’re forcing your body to function without enough water. Chronic dehydration, when significant, requires prompt medical attention.
When you’re dehydrated, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- dark-colored urine
- muscle fatigue
- extreme thirst
Chronic dehydration presents a bit differently. You may experience some of the above symptoms. Or you may not even notice that you’re low on fluid. This happens as your body becomes less sensitive to water intake and tries to make do with less water, regardless of how much you’re drinking. Other signs of chronic dehydration include:
- dry or flaky skin
- constant fatigue
- ongoing muscle weakness
- frequent headaches
Signs of chronic dehydration that a doctor will look for include a concentrated blood volume, abnormal electrolyte levels, and reduced kidney function over time.
The causes of chronic dehydration can vary. Risk factors for developing chronic dehydration include:
- living in warmer climates
- working outdoors
- having only sporadic access to water
Frequent diarrhea can leave you dehydrated. Certain digestive tract conditions can make you more prone to diarrhea, including:
Dehydration can occur in children. Babies and toddlers who can’t express that they’re thirsty can become acutely dehydrated. Childhood illnesses accompanied by a fever, diarrhea, or vomiting also leave children vulnerable to dehydration. Be familiar with the warning signs of dehydration in toddlers.
Both pregnancy and breastfeeding can also put you at a higher risk for dehydration. Hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition caused by pregnancy, can make it especially difficult to maintain proper hydration levels.
If your doctor suspects you have chronic dehydration, they may run several tests. A simple physical exam test to check for any kind of dehydration is called a skin turgor test. This measures your skin’s elasticity, indicating if your fluid levels are healthy. By pinching your skin gently and observing how long it takes for your skin to regain its natural shape afterward, your doctor can get an indication of whether or not you’re dehydrated.
Other testing for chronic dehydration requires lab work. These tests will indicate the extent of your dehydration. Also, having a baseline to compare subsequent labs over time can help your doctor differentiate between acute and chronic dehydration. They can also help your doctor decide what kind of treatment to recommend.
Tests for chronic dehydration include:
- Urinalysis. Testing your urine will help your doctor see if your body is producing enough or too little urine.
- Chemistry panel testing. This blood test will reveal the levels of electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, in your body. This test can also indicate if your kidneys are able to process waste efficiently.
When you have chronic dehydration, drinking plain water is sometimes not enough to restore your body’s electrolyte balance. Drinks with added electrolytes may be prescribed to help your body recover lost fluid.
Instead of drinking a high volume of liquid at once, you may need to drink small quantities of fluid more often. In severe cases of chronic dehydration, you may need to be hospitalized and have an intravenous line to deliver fluids directly into your bloodstream until dehydration improves.
Your long-term care will be geared toward preventing future dehydration. This will depend on what’s causing your dehydration in the first place. Addressing underlying digestive and organ conditions may be part of your chronic dehydration treatment.
If your chronic dehydration is related to your lifestyle, occupation, or diet, you can work with your doctor to make changes that make dehydration less likely. Possible management options include:
- tracking your daily water intake by using a journal or an app
- decreasing alcohol consumption
- watching your stress levels
- cutting back on diuretic medication therapy
- cutting back on caffeine if it’s causing you to lose fluid
Recovery time for dehydration depends on the underlying cause and may also depend on how long you’ve been dehydrated. If your dehydration is severe enough that it requires hospitalization, or if it’s accompanied by heatstroke, it may take a day or two before you can be released from the hospital.
Once the emergency stage of dehydration has passed, your doctor will continue to monitor your recovery. You’ll need to follow treatment guidelines for at least the next few weeks while your doctor monitors your temperature, urine volume, and electrolytes.
If you’re chronically dehydrated, you can develop other health conditions. Symptoms such as nausea, headaches, dizziness, and muscle cramping may continue or worsen as your dehydration progresses.
Ongoing dehydration has been linked to:
- decreased kidney function
- kidney stones
- urinary tract infections
- intestinal failure
Researchers are still working to understand all of the ways that chronic dehydration can impact your bodily functions.
Chronic dehydration is a serious condition. It should never be ignored. When severe, it requires emergency medical assistance.
Typically, after your dehydration symptoms subside, the outlook is good. It may have been more acute than chronic and due to a reversible condition with a straightforward, identifiable cause. However, if your dehydration is more severe or prolonged, you may have an underlying illness. This could require close treatment or monitoring for a longer period of time even after your dehydration improves.
Be careful to avoid dehydration in the future and improve your long-term health by addressing habits or causes that cause you to become dehydrated.