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When dry air gets the best of you: Staying hydrated for health in the winter months

In the summertime when we’re playing sports or mowing the lawn, we know to drink plenty of water. But did you know that it’s not uncommon to get dehydrated during colder times of year as well?

Shan Antony, MD, Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program

“In the summer months, we often know we are getting dehydrated because we have the sensation of thirst or can see the sweat on our bodies,” explained Shan Antony, MD, second year resident with the Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program. “But that is not always the case in the colder months.”

Here’s what you need to know about hydration and dehydration.

What causes dehydration?

Dehydration simply means that your body is using water faster than you’re taking it in.

“People tend to get dehydrated in the winter months when they wear excessively warm clothing or are frequently in spaces with central heating,” said Dr. Antony, noting that central heating often causes drier air.

Those things aren’t bad, but they mean we need to drink enough water to replace the moisture we’re losing. If we don’t, we’ll become dehydrated.

Dehydration tends to affect people who are thin, elderly or very young. People in these groups tend to have lower blood volumes, so they’ll notice the effects of dehydration more quickly. In addition, children and the elderly are more likely to simply forget to drink water regularly.

Dehydration during the winter can also be associated with:

  • Illnesses that cause vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Certain other medical conditions, such as kidney disease

What does dehydration look like?

The classic signs of dehydration include:

  • Being thirsty
  • Having a dry mouth or dry cough
  • Urinating less
  • Having darker urine
  • Not sweating when hot
  • A high heart rate but low blood pressure

You can also check for dehydration by pinching the skin on the back of your hand. If you’re well hydrated, it should snap back quickly.

The symptoms of moderate dehydration are less well known. Dr. Antony says to watch for:

  • Painful urination
  • Loss of energy, or quickly becoming fatigued with activity
  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dry skin, lips, mouth and/or throat
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Intolerance of cold

A few additional signs of dehydration can be easy to miss or blame on something else. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Swelling in the feet
  • Muscle cramps
  • Chills

What to do when you’re dehydrated

If you think you’re dehydrated, the first thing to do is drink a refreshing beverage. Another option is to eat a juicy fruit or vegetable. Watermelon, honeydew melon and cantaloupe all have a very high water content. If your dehydration is due to heat, refrigerated fruit can also help you cool down.

If you’re sick, the best hydration will depend on your ability to eat.

“If you’re able to eat, even if only a little bit throughout the day, free water is the best hydration,” Dr. Antony advised. “On the other hand, if you’re unable to eat or are frequently vomiting or having diarrhea, a sports drink or water mixed with some electrolytes is a better alternative.”

It’s best to avoid alcoholic beverages, soda (including diet soda) and any beverage with caffeine, as they can make dehydration worse.

When to seek help

Severe dehydration can be life-threatening, and simply drinking more fluid may not work quickly enough. Adults should seek medical help if any of the following symptoms are present:

  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Fainting or almost fainting
  • In the elderly, confusion or a change in mental function
  • In children, crying, significantly less activity or wakefulness or infrequent urination

If you’re not sure about your symptoms or need for medical help, call your provider’s office for advice. Your provider may provide fluid intravenously (via a needle, usually in the arm) to more quickly hydrate you. They may also want to run tests to help determine the cause of your dehydration.

Dehydration is actually a common reason for hospital admission among those who are at high risk, namely elderly people and young children. Both groups can show symptoms of dehydration quickly and have difficulty addressing the problem on their own.

“If left alone, this become a dangerous cycle that could lead to very serious complications,” explained Dr. Antony. “For this reason, they require a hospital admission for intravenous fluids at minimum, and often more if there is a specific medical cause that led to their dehydration.”

How to stay hydrated

To make sure your body has enough water to keep you in tip-top shape, make drinking water or other low-calories beverages part of your routine; for example, drink a full glass of water with every meal. Also consider bringing a beverage with you as you go through your day so that you drink regularly between meals, before you get thirsty.

Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet – both have plenty of fluid that’s good for you! And finally, be sure to drink extra water during exercise, in hot or dry environments and when you’re not feeling well.

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