Dehydration in children

Dehydration occurs when the body loses too much water. This can occur if a child loses large amounts of fluid through diarrhea, vomiting, or sweating. Dehydration decreases the amount of blood that circulates to the child's organs. Severe dehydration can cause shock, a life-threatening condition.

Dehydration in small children can develop rapidly and be very dangerous. Watch closely for early signs of dehydration any time your child has a high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or is too sick to drink.

A young child will not be able to tell you if he or she is feeling dehydrated, so you must look for the symptoms.

A child with mild dehydration:

  • Is fussy.
  • Acts hungry or thirsty most of the time.
  • Urinates less frequently than usual or needs fewer diaper changes. The urine will have a strong odor and be dark yellow.

A child with moderate dehydration:

  • Has decreased interest in play.
  • Has a sunken soft spot (fontanel) in the head.
  • Has sunken eyes with few tears. The child's mouth is dry, with little or no saliva.
  • Appears to be very hungry or thirsty.
  • Is irritable, agitated, or restless.
  • Has not urinated for 8 hours or has urinated fewer than 3 times (had fewer than 3 wet diapers) in 24 hours.
  • May have arms or legs that feel cool to the touch.
  • May have a rapid heartbeat.

Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. Call 911 or other emergency services immediately.

A child with severe dehydration:

  • Has little or no interest in his or her surroundings.
  • May be so sleepy that he or she is difficult to wake up.
  • May be unconscious.
  • Has a dry mouth and tongue. The child's tongue may look parched or cracked.
  • Has a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on top of the head.
  • Has sunken eyes without tears.
  • Has fast breathing and a rapid heartbeat. You may not be able to feel the child's pulse.
  • Has not urinated for more than 12 hours.

Last Updated: June 30, 2009

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