Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluid than you consume. This can happen for many reasons, including excessive diarrhea or vomiting.

When left untreated, dehydration can be dangerous. This is because your body relies on water to perform basic functions.

Oral rehydration therapy is a treatment for dehydration. It involves drinking a beverage made of water, sugar, and electrolytes, specifically potassium and sodium. The beverage is called an oral rehydration solution (ORS).

The goal of oral rehydration therapy is to replenish the body’s fluid levels. It’s typically used to treat moderate dehydration due to diarrhea, vomiting, or other conditions.

Read on to learn about the benefits, uses, and side effects of oral rehydration solutions.

In general, mild dehydration can be treated with fluids like water and clear broth.

But for moderate dehydration, an ORS might be ideal. In addition to water, ORS contains specific amounts of glucose and electrolytes. The electrolytes are potassium and sodium.

These components maximize fluid absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract relies on sodium-glucose cotransporters (SGLTs), which are carrier proteins in the intestinal cells. Cotransporters help move substances across membranes.

Specifically, SGLTs pair together sodium and glucose transport in the small intestine. This allows glucose to increase the absorption of fluids.

Additionally, sodium needs glucose in order to be properly absorbed. This is why ORS contains both glucose and sodium.

Since 1975, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have used ORS to treat dehydration due to diarrhea. It’s commonly used in countries with limited access to clean water or other hydration options.

The success rate of oral rehydration therapy is high. According to 2018 research, oral rehydration therapy has prevented 54 million deaths due to diarrhea since 2007. Since 1980, the therapy has also reduced diarrhea-related deaths in children by two-thirds.

Oral rehydration therapy is safe for children. It’s commonly used to treat diarrhea-related dehydration in children.

Compared to adults, children are more likely to experience dehydration due to diarrhea. They have a higher metabolic rate, meaning their bodies quickly use water. Children might also be unable to recognize thirst or hydrate themselves.

Factors like burns, excessive sweating, or low water intake can further increase the risk of dehydration.

Oral rehydration therapy might also be used for older people and those with medical conditions. Like children, these individuals have a higher risk of developing dehydration.

Generally, healthy adults with mild diarrhea can also drink ORS, but it might be unnecessary. They can usually rehydrate with water, clear broths, or sports drinks that contain electrolytes.

Oral rehydration therapy is designed to normalize electrolyte levels. However, if the solution isn’t prepared or used correctly, it can cause salt toxicity. This is also known as hypernatremia.

Possible side effects include:

Who should avoid oral hydration solutions

You should use oral rehydration solutions with caution if you:

A doctor can determine if oral rehydration therapy is safe for you.

In general, oral rehydration solutions should only be used when prescribed by a doctor.

When used improperly, an ORS can lead to salt toxicity. This is more likely to happen if you drink an ORS when you don’t actually need it.

If you’ve had a lot of diarrhea or vomiting, speak with a doctor first. They can determine if you need an oral rehydration solution or if drinks like water are sufficient.

Similarly, if you think you’re dehydrated, contact a medical professional first. Your need for an oral rehydration solution will depend on many factors, including your age and overall health status.

In most cases, healthy adults can rehydrate by drinking:

  • water
  • clear broth
  • diluted juices
  • sports drinks

If you’re still experiencing dehydration symptoms after drinking these fluids, consult a doctor.

ORS is a liquid solution. It’s designed to be consumed by mouth.

If a person is unable to drink due to vomiting, nasogastric feeding might be used. This delivers the ORS via a nasogastric tube, which is inserted through the nose and into the stomach.

It’s not recommended to treat dehydration with homemade ORS. Over-the-counter or prescription ORS is the safer choice.

Typically, ORS is available as powders in packets. The powders are designed to be dissolved in water.

The general steps for preparing an ORS are as follows:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and clean water.
  2. Next, wash a container and utensil with soap and clean water.
  3. Pour one liter of clean water into the container.
  4. Add the ORS powder to the water, then mix with the utensil.

How much to administer by age

The appropriate amount of ORS depends on your age.

This is because your age determines how much fluid your body needs to function. Younger children are naturally smaller, so they need less. Adults will need more because they have larger bodies.

Here are the recommended doses by weight or age, according to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital:

Weight or ageDosage
7–10 poundsat least 2 ounces (4 tablespoons or 1/4 cup) per hour
11–15 poundsat least 2 1/2 ounces (5 tablespoons) per hour
16–20 poundsat least 3 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) per hour
21–40 poundsat least 6 1/2 ounces (3/4 cup) per hour
41–60 poundsat least 10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) per hour
10 years or olderup to 68 ounces (8 1/2 cups) per day

In addition to ORS, dehydration can also be treated by drinking:

  • water
  • tea
  • sports drinks
  • clear broth
  • diluted juices

The exception is severe dehydration, which requires intravenous rehydration. This treatment can quickly replenish lost fluids in emergency situations.

Mild dehydration can usually be treated with fluids like water and clear broth. However, symptoms of moderate to severe dehydration warrant a doctor’s visit.

Medical emergency

Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. Call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if you experience:

You should also see a doctor if you experience the following symptoms after consuming an ORS:

These symptoms might indicate salt toxicity.

An oral rehydration solution is used to treat moderate dehydration. It’s made of water, glucose, sodium, and potassium. The combination optimizes the absorption of fluid in the intestines, which helps quickly replenish fluids.

The solution is often used to treat dehydration due to diarrhea or vomiting. You can buy it over the counter or get a prescription.

If you’ve had a lot of diarrhea or vomiting, speak with a doctor. They can determine if you need an oral rehydration solution or if you can rehydrate with plain water.