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Quick Facts

Dehydration in Children


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Dec 2019| Content last modified Dec 2019
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Everyone needs water and certain chemicals (electrolytes) to be healthy. Normally, you drink fluids to meet the need, and being thirsty tells you when you need more fluids. But babies and very young children can't always tell you when they need fluid, especially when they're sick.

What is dehydration in children?

Dehydration is not having enough water in your body. Dehydration in children usually happens because of throwing up or diarrhea and the child isn't drinking enough to make up for it. Fever makes dehydration worse.

  • Throwing up and diarrhea can cause dehydration

  • Getting too little milk when breastfeeding can cause dehydration in babies

  • Severe dehydration can make children very sick or sometimes die

  • A dehydrated child needs fluids and minerals called electrolytes

  • Breast milk and oral rehydration solutions (sold at drug stores and supermarkets) have the right balance of water and electrolytes

Soda, juice, and sports drinks don't have the right balance of water and electrolytes.

What are the symptoms of dehydration?

Children will have symptoms of whatever is making them dehydrated, such as a lot of vomiting, diarrhea, or both. Dehydration causes symptoms such as:

  • Playing and talking less

  • Being cranky and irritable

  • Crying without making tears

  • Dry mouth

  • Sunken cheeks and eyes

  • Losing weight over just a few days

  • Urinating fewer than 2 or 3 times a day

Go to a doctor right away if your child has one of these warning signs:

  • Can’t keep any fluids down

  • Isn't passing the usual amount of urine or is wetting fewer diapers

  • Just lies there looking weak and tired

Severe dehydration can be life-threatening if it isn't treated.

How do doctors treat dehydration in children?

Children who have a little vomiting or diarrhea but aren't dehydrated can keep drinking what they usually do. You can give them some extra fluid, such as small sips of clear soups, clear sodas, or a mix of half-juice and half-water. Children over 1 year can also be given popsicles.

Dehydrated children need extra fluid with the right mix of water and electrolytes. Plain water, milk, soda, juice, and sports drinks don't have the right balance of water and electrolytes.

What fluids to give:

  • Breast milk, if you're already breastfeeding (breast milk contains electrolytes and is the best fluid for breastfeeding babies)

  • Oral rehydration solution (a combination of water and electrolytes) that you can buy as a powder or liquid at a drug store or grocery store—after your baby has gone 12 hours without throwing up, then you can give formula

How to give fluids:

  • If your child is dehydrated from throwing up, give small sips of fluids every 10 minutes, then larger amounts more often if your child can keep it down

  • If your child is dehydrated from diarrhea, give more fluid, less often—you can also give formula or regular food if your child isn't throwing up

If your child is severely dehydrated or is too sick to drink enough, doctors will:

  • Give fluids through a vein (by IV)

  • Give fluids through a thin plastic tube that goes into the child's nose, down the throat, and into the stomach

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