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Dehydration Complications

Dehydration complications occur when the body expels more fluids and electrolytes than it produces.

Scientists conduct tests to identify dehydration complications in order to develop better remedies. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Scientists conduct tests to identify dehydration complications in order to develop better remedies.

Dehydration Complications

Dehydration complications occur when the body expels more fluids and electrolytes than it produces. While the causes of dehydration are numerous, its effect is the same reduction of the bodys ability to function in a normal, healthy way. Complications range from mild to severe, depending on the intensity of the dehydration. Researchers at Texas A&M University classify mild dehydration as under five percent loss of body weight, moderate dehydration as between five and 10 percent loss of body weight and severe dehydration as 10 to 15 percent loss of body weight. Because the body relies significantly on fluid and electrolytes to maintain its vital functions, the complications of dehydration can be severe and even fatal.

Heat Injury

Heat injury is a common complication of dehydration, which can affect people of all ages and fitness levels. The combination of high temperatures, physical exertion, profuse sweating and insufficient hydration creates conditions that can lead to heat injury.

The body uses sweat as a cooling mechanism, in which fluids and electrolytes leave the body and rest on the skins surface. When sweat evaporates, the body cools off. High temperatures and high humidity make this cooling system less effective, meaning that the body continues to sweat (increasing dehydration) but does not cool off adequately. As the body tries to compensate for the climactic conditions, more sweat is expelled, leading to possibly dangerous heat injury.

There are various stages of heat injury, each corresponding with increasing levels of dehydration. The first and mildest stage of heat injury is heat cramps. As the body continues to sweat and loses critical fluids and electrolytes, muscles contract slowly, causing painful spasms.

The next, and more serious, stage of heat injury is heat exhaustion. This occurs when the bodys cooling mechanisms are unable to function properly due to dehydration. As a result, blood vessels and capillaries shut down. Heat exhaustion often occurs over a longer period of time, as the body continues to be subjected to high levels of heat and humidity without proper hydration. Heat exhaustion can cause a variety of symptoms, including headache, nausea, dizziness, loss of coordination and anxiety.

Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat injury. Dehydration becomes so severe that the bodys cooling system shuts down completely and the bodys temperature rises dangerouslyand potentially fatally. According to the National Ag Safety Database, more than 20 percent of heat stroke victims die, regardless of age or health status. There are two basic forms of heatstroke, both of which are life-threatening. One form of heat stroke occurs after being dehydrated for an extended period of time. The other form of heat stroke is exertional heat stroke, which occurs in typically healthy individuals who expend too much energy in a short period of time without adequately hydrating the body.

Cerebral Edema

Another severe complication related to dehydration is cerebral edema, or brain swelling. In normal cases of dehydration, patients lose sodium through fluid loss. In cases of hypotonic dehydration, however, too much sodium is lost through sweat. In response to the loss of sodium, the body generates particles to draw extra fluid into the cells. However, if too much extra fluid enters cells, they can swell and rupture. When brain cells are involved, causing cerebral edema, this can be a dangerous complication. Although the brain can adjust to small increases in fluid volume over time, large or rapid increases are not tolerated. Excessive buildup of fluid in the brain can cause brain functioning to be compromisedcreating a possibly fatal medical emergency.


Shock is one of the more dire complications of severe dehydration. There are several forms of shock, which all cause the bodys vital organs to shut down. Hypovolemic shock can be caused by severe dehydration. When the body loses fluid during dehydration, it is also losing blood volume. Since the blood carries oxygen, this results in less oxygen reaching vital organs.

While the body is often able to compensate for fluids lost gradually (even if the losses result in mild dehydration), shock is prevalent in cases of rapid and high volume fluid loss. According to researchers at Louisiana Tech University, a 12 percent fluid loss can cause significant shock.

Other Life-threatening Complications

Additional severe complications of dehydration include seizures, kidney failure and coma. Seizures can take place when the bodys system of fluids and electrolytes becomes unbalanced, causing electrical impulses in the brain to fire abnormally. Seizures create uncontrollable muscle spasms and can lead to unconsciousness.

Without adequate fluids and salts to manage the bodys many systems, the kidneys can struggle to evacuate waste products from the body. Therefore, in severe cases of dehydration, kidney failure can occur. Other vital organs and processes can be affected by dehydration as well, resulting in potential comas and fatalities.

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