Acute dehydration is the severe and rapid onset of loss of bodily fluids, most commonly caused by diarrheal diseases. As the body loses water, electrolyte imbalances can develop. Dehydration is treated as a medical emergency and is treated by restoring fluids to the patient's body and monitoring the patient for signs of complications like organ damage. Hospitalization may be required to stabilize the patient, depending on the cause of the dehydration and how severe it became before treatment.
People with diarrheal diseases lose body fluids rapidly as a result of frequent loose stool. Acute dehydration can also be caused by failing to get enough water during exercise or heavy physical labor and by some types of diseases. People with acute dehydration tend to become extremely thirsty. Their skin and mucous membranes may feel dry, and they can develop an altered level of consciousness, decreased urine output, dark urine, fatigue, and confusion.
The immediate treatment for acute dehydration is supplemental fluids. Oral and intravenous fluids can both be used in the management of dehydration. The fluids may include salts to restore the patient's electrolytes and avoid an electrolyte imbalance caused by flooding the body with fresh fluids. In patients who continue to experience fluid loss, such as patients with diarrhea, the fluid supplementation may be kept up throughout the course of the patient's disease to prevent the dehydration from recurring. Fluids can also be given prophylactically to prevent dehydration in patients at risk.
Once the patient has been stabilized with fluids, treatment of the underlying cause of the dehydration can begin. In some cases, just providing fluids should resolve the issue; an athlete who worked too hard in hot weather with not enough water, for example, just needs rest and fluids to recover. In other cases, patients may need things like antibiotics to treat gastrointestinal infections.
Blood testing may be used to check on organ function, looking for damage to structures like the liver and kidneys. Brain damage is also a possibility and once a patient is stable, a neurological assessment can be conducted to look for signs of brain injury. These complications of dehydration may be treatable in some cases and in others may be permanent, requiring adjustments and adaptations for the patient. The longer a patient was allowed to remain dehydrated and the more severe the fluid deprivation, the more likely the possibility of permanent physical damage as a result of acute dehydration, especially if it is paired with conditions like heat stroke.