By: Darla VanHeerde, M.D.
You're all set for a day at the beach with the kids. You've got your sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. The car is packed with sand toys, beach balls, a blow up air mattress, and colorful towels. Your beach bag contains enough sunscreen to last until next January. Have you thought of everything needed for a fun day in the sun?
You'll want to include a cooler filled with nice cool drinks – to ward off dehydration that can come from prolonged exposure to the high temperatures, direct sun, and high humidity that often make up our Minnesota summer days.
Children can be at higher risk for dehydration than adults for a number of reasons. Their body surface area makes up a much greater proportion of their overall weight than an adult, so they produce more heat during physical activity. Children also have higher metabolic rates, causing a greater need for water. Dehydration often causes nausea, and children avoid eating or drinking when they aren't feeling well. This just makes the problem worse. Finally, a child's kidneys are not as efficient and do not conserve water as well as an adult's.
Parents should make sure that kids drink plenty of cool water, sports drinks, and juice during the summer months (and all year long). Liquids should be consumed throughout the day – starting early in the morning – so the body stays hydrated. Don't wait until you (or your child) is thirsty before seeking fluids. By the time a person feels thirsty, the body is already about two percent dehydrated.
It's also important to note that dehydration is cumulative. If you are two percent dehydrated in the morning, and consume an insufficient amount of fluids so that you become another one percent dehydrated by nightfall, you will be three percent dehydrated tomorrow. The problem can develop gradually, with symptoms showing up after several days.
Symptoms of mild dehydration include: irritability, fussiness, restlessness, feeling hot, a constant feeling of hunger or thirst, and urine that is dark yellow with a strong odor.
Moderate dehydration causes a decreased interest in activities, sunken eyes with a lack of tears, dry mouth, and an absence of urination for eight hours.
Untreated dehydration can lead to heat illness, which can include dizziness, fainting, nausea, vomiting, headaches, profuse sweating, cramps in the stomach, arms and legs, unconsciousness, seizures, and coma. If a person suffering from dehydration loses consciousness, is severely disoriented, has a seizure or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately.
The good news is that dehydration is easy to prevent, and when recognized in the early stages, you can treat it effectively at home by controlling fluid loss and replacing fluids.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of dehydration, stop all activity and rest quietly. Get out of the direct sun, elevate your feet, and remove unnecessary clothing. Use cool wet cloths on overheated skin. Rest for 24 hours, and continue replacing fluids throughout that time.
What types of fluids are best for hydration? Noncarbonated sports drinks that provide at least 100 mg of sodium and 28 mg of potassium per eight ounces help replace the sodium and potassium lost through perspiration. However, be aware that not all sports drinks are created equal. Some drinks use the word “sport” on their label, but provide no sodium or potassium. Water is a good thirst quencher and doesn't give kids extra sugar that they don't need. However the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has shown that it is difficult to get kids to drink enough plain water. Juice is okay in a pinch, but it is laden with sugar and should be diluted with water if possible.
Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages as these can increase dehydration.
The best plan, of course, is to avoid becoming dehydrated altogether. Adults should drink eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses of fluids each day. The AAP recommends that a child who weighs 88 pounds should drink five ounces of fluids every 20 minutes while playing sports or out in the sun.
Our Minnesota summers are short, and most of us want to make the most of them. With just a few precautions you can have fun at the beach this summer. Bring lots of toys, towels, snacks, and sunscreen. And, remember that the most important water isn't in the lake -- it's in your cooler.
Dr. VanHeerde is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.