The only effective treatment for dehydration is to replace lost fluids and lost electrolytes. The best approach to dehydration treatment depends on your age, the severity of your dehydration and its cause.
Treating dehydration in sick children
Your doctor can offer specific suggestions for treating dehydration in your child, but some general guidelines include the following:
- Use an oral rehydration solution. Unless your doctor advises otherwise, use an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte for infants and children who have diarrhea, vomiting or fever. These solutions contain water and salts in specific proportions to replenish both fluids and electrolytes. They also contain glucose or another carbohydrate such as rice powder to enhance absorption in the intestinal tract. Oral rehydration products are readily available in most drugstores, and many pharmacies carry their own brands. Begin giving fluids early in the course of an illness instead of waiting until the situation becomes urgent.In most developing countries, you can buy packets of a powdered oral rehydration solution, WHO-ORS, originally developed by the World Health Organization to treat diarrhea and dehydration in infants with cholera. Reconstitute the powder in water according to the directions on the package. Always purify the water first by boiling, filtration or other proven methods. Remeasure the water, then add the powdered oral rehydration material.In an emergency situation where a pre-formulated solution is unavailable, you can make your own oral rehydration solution by mixing 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 liter (about 1 quart) of safe drinking water. Be sure to measure accurately because incorrect amounts can make the solution less effective or even harmful. If possible, have someone else check your measurements for accuracy.
Whatever alternative you chose, be sure to give enough solution. Your doctor may suggest specific amounts, depending on your child’s age and degree of dehydration, but a general rule of thumb is to keep giving liquids slowly until your child’s urine becomes clear in color. When your child is vomiting, try giving small amounts of solution at frequent intervals — 1 teaspoon every minute, for instance. If your child can’t keep this down, wait 30 to 60 minutes and try again. Room temperature fluids are best.
- Continue to breast-feed. Don’t stop breast-feeding when your baby is sick, but add an oral rehydration solution as well. If you give your baby formula, try switching to one that’s lactose-free until diarrhea improves — lactose can make diarrhea worse. Never dilute formula more than the instructions advise. Your doctor may also suggest substituting an oral rehydration solution for the formula for 12 to 24 hours.
- Avoid certain foods and drinks. The best liquid for a sick child is an oral rehydration solution — plain water doesn’t provide essential electrolytes, and although sports drinks replenish electrolytes, they replace those lost through sweating, not through diarrhea or vomiting. Avoid giving your child salty broths, milk — especially boiled milk — sodas, fruit juices or gelatins, which don’t relieve dehydration and which may make symptoms worse.
Treating dehydration in sick adults
Most adults with mild to moderate dehydration from diarrhea, vomiting or fever can improve their condition by drinking more water. Water is best because other liquids, such as fruit juices, carbonated beverages or coffee, can make diarrhea worse.
Treating dehydration in athletes of all ages
For exercise-related dehydration, cool water is your best bet. Sports drinks containing electrolytes and a carbohydrate solution also may be helpful. There’s no need for salt tablets — too much salt can lead to hypernatremic dehydration, a condition in which your body not only is short of water but also carries an excess of sodium.
Treating severe dehydration
Children and adults who are severely dehydrated should be treated by emergency personnel arriving in an ambulance or in a hospital emergency room, where they can receive salts and fluids through a vein (intravenously) rather than by mouth. Intravenous hydration provides the body with water and essential nutrients much more quickly than oral solutions do — something that’s essential in life-threatening situations.