The closest I have been to death was due to dehydration caused by the flu. I was in the U.S. Army stationed at Ft. Gordon, GA. It was Thanksgiving weekend and my roommate was out of town. I was one of only a few soldiers in the barracks. I tried sleeping it off, but in the process I quit drinking water and I missed a few meals. My health spiraled downward from there.
Dehydration hit me hard in about 24 hours. I became so sick that once I realized what was happening I was barely able to get myself out of bed. I remember thinking that it was best if I collapsed outside because someone was more likely to find me. If I had stayed in my room no one would have been able to help me in time. I struggled to get dressed and then stumbled about a mile to the local clinic. I was flush, weak, dizzy, and confused. Once I got to the clinic they gave me three liters of saline solution intravenously over a three hour period. It was pretty scary.
Water is a Basic Need
Second to air, water is the next most basic need for human survival. Over the next two months, my Wilderness Adventure posts will focus on water. I will write about finding and treating water, but first I’ll discuss some basics about our need for water. A basic understanding of how our bodies use water, the symptoms, and treatment of dehydration, could prove to be very useful. Additionally, knowing what makes water unsafe to drink will help you select the water treatment method that is best for your adventure. My posts on water will include the following:
- Our Need for Water & Basics of Dehydration (this post)
- What Makes Water Unsafe
- Finding and Assessing Sources of Water
- Overview of Water Treatment Methods/Options
- UV Light
- How Much Water Do We Need
We are Mostly Water
“Plasma, which is 92 percent water, constitutes 55 percent of blood volume.” – American Red Cross
Let’s consider how our bodies use water. Various sources show that our bodies are between 50% and 75% water depending on variables such as health, gender, and age. In order to stay healthy, we must stay hydrated by replacing the water as our body uses it. We use water for all of the major systems in our body such as:
- Creation and Survival of Cells
- Regulating Body Temperature
- Keeping Tissues and Joints Moist
- Protecting Organs and Tissues
- Converting Food During Digestion
- Transporting Nutrients and Oxygen to Cells
- Removing Waste
As I described above, its very easy to become dehydrated in a short period of time. Its particularly easy when performing exercise such as backpacking. Yet, our bodies will warn us of dehydration if we are paying attention. The Mayo Clinic’s list of adult dehydration symptoms are:
- Extreme thirst
- Less frequent urination
- Dark-colored urine
Thirst can be one of the early signs. Yet, older adults often don’t get thirsty until they are already dehydrated. Other symptoms of dehydration are reduced frequency of urination and yellow urine. Note that some vitamins can cause urine to become more yellow even when hydrated. Take note of how often you urinate during a normal day and compare that to how many times you urinate when training. Frequency will vary with some foods and some medications.
“For most people, normal frequency is about 6 – 7 times in a 24 hour period, yet between 4 and 10 times a day can also be normal[.]”
Without enough water, the body starts working overtime. We become weak and will eventually get dizzy and confused. A reduction of water in the blood causes blood volume to drop and makes the blood much harder for the heart to pump. So much so, that blood stops getting to our extremities.
“Under extreme conditions an adult can lose between one and 1.5 liters of sweat an hour. If that lost water is not replaced, the total volume of body fluid can fall quickly and, most dangerously, blood volume may drop.”
Eventually, systems will start to shut down. The length of survival without water is dependent upon how quickly your body is losing water. In extreme heat conditions dehydration can cause death in a matter of hours while in more temperate conditions we may be able to survive for days without water.
First of all, the best treatment is prevention. By definition, the treatment of dehydration requires the replacement of water into the body. That may be simple in the case of someone who has become dehydrated due to not drinking enough. If its caught in the early stages, simply drinking water will help.
- Stop hiking
- Rest in a shaded location with legs elevated
- Remove clothes to prevent over heating
- Drink water until re-hydrated
However, if dehydration is more extreme it will require more aggressive treatment. If the victim has sweat a lot, it is important to replace the electrolytes along with the water. My backpacking meals include one electrolyte replacement drink mix per day. Additionally, my backpacking first aid kit includes re-hydration salts for a dehydration emergency.
Don’t Forget the Electrolytes
We lose electrolytes through the salt in our sweat and when we go to the bathroom. There are five main electrolytes that each perform some key roles in our bodies:
- Calcium – helps with muscle contractions, nerve signals, blood clotting, and cell replication
- Potassium – regulates blood pressure, heart contractions, and helps muscles function
- Magnesium – helps with muscle contractions, heart rhythms, nerve signals, digestion
- Sodium – helps regulate fluid balance, helps with muscle contractions, and nerve signals
- Chloride – regulates fluid balance
Dehydration due to diarrhea or vomiting makes the replacement of water more difficult. For these cases, it is important that your backpacking first aid kit contain an anti-emetic such as Imodium or Pepto Bismol. It’s important to slow the water and electrolyte loss while re-hydrating. If dehydration becomes severe you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Note that I’m not a doctor so I’m not giving medical advice. I’m just a normal dude that has experienced dehydration and has done some research.
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Featured Image Source: Sunset Over Yellowstone Lake