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What to Do About Dehydration

First Aid

Dehydration is when there is not enough water in the body. In children, it is often caused by vomiting, diarrhea, or both. Kids who are dehydrated need to replace the water, along with salt and sugar. This is called rehydration. They can rehydrate by drinking small amounts of liquids often.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Dehydration?

Signs of dehydration include:

  • a dry or sticky mouth
  • few or no tears when crying
  • eyes that look sunken
  • in babies, the soft spot (fontanelle) on top of the head looks sunken
  • peeing less or fewer wet diapers than usual
  • crankiness
  • drowsiness or dizziness

How Do I Treat Dehydration?

If your child has signs of dehydration, call your doctor.

Mild dehydration often can be treated at home. The doctor may recommend that you give oral rehydration. Here's how to do it.

Things you’ll need:

  • Liquids for your child to drink. The best liquid for dehydrated kids is an oral rehydration solution, like Pedialyte® and Enfalyte® (and many stores also have a store brand). It has the right amounts of water, sugar, and salt to help with dehydration. You can buy it without a prescription at drugstores or supermarkets. If you can’t get oral rehydration solution, talk to your doctor. Other liquids can help with dehydration.
    • If you breastfeed your child, you can keep doing so. If your child is feeding less than usual, also give the rehydration fluids.
    • Don't give babies plain water instead of oral rehydration solution. It doesn't have the right nutrients for babies with dehydration.
    • Older children also can have electrolyte ice pops.
    • Don’t give sports drinks, soda, or full-strength (undiluted) fruit juice. They have too much sugar and can make some symptoms worse.
  • A small medicine cup, medicine syringe, or spoon or to give the fluids with. 
  • A clock or timer (such as on your phone). 
  • A way to keep track of what your child drinks. Tracking on a piece of paper or a note on your phone will work fine.

1. Go slow. Give your child a small amount of liquid every 5 minutes or so and make a note to keep track. 

  • Babies and toddlers can start with 10 ml (2 teaspoons).
  • Older kids can start with 15 ml (1 tablespoon).

2. Set a timer as a reminder to keep going. Some kids might enjoy making it a game. For example, if your child is listening to music, every time they hear the title or chorus or a new song starts, it’s time to take a sip.

  • After your child has gone 2 hours of taking sips without vomiting, you can stop using the timer and give them larger amounts of liquid to drink less often and offer small amounts of food if they are hungry.

3. Be ready for common challenges, like if your child:

  • Refuses to drink. If your child refuses a few doses, take a 15- to 20-minute break and try again in a little bit.
  • Needs a nap. A short nap is OK. Just wake them up to drink after an hour or so.
  • Has vomiting. If your child vomits, take a 15-minute pause before trying sips of liquid again. Don’t give medicines for diarrhea or vomiting unless the doctor recommends it.

When Should I Call the Doctor About Dehydration?

Call the doctor if your child:

  • won't take anything to drink for more than a few hours
  • is under 1 year old and is drinking only oral electrolyte solution (no breast milk or formula) for 24 hours
  • vomits more than a few times in 24 hours
  • has vomit that's bright green, red, or brown
  • hasn’t started eating some food within 3–4 days
  • still has signs of dehydration after you have tried rehydration
  • doesn’t seem to be getting better

Get emergency medical care if your child is very sleepy or isn’t responding to you.

What Can Help Prevent Dehydration?

Whenever your child gets sick, give extra liquids or oral electrolyte solution to prevent dehydration. Give small amounts often, especially if your child is vomiting.

Kids should drink often during hot weather. Those who play sports or are very physically active should drink extra liquids beforehand, and then take regular drink breaks (about every 20 minutes) during the activity.

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date Reviewed: Jun 2, 2023

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