Treating a dehydrated child

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Dehydration can occur because of poor intake or excessive loss of fluids through vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating and urination. Young children are at greater risk of dehydration than adults because their bodies have a higher percentage of water, their metabolic rates are higher and they are at greater risk of infections that cause vomiting and diarrhoea. They are also dependent on others to feed them and give them water.

Essential bodily processes such as circulation of the blood, excretion by the kidneys and sweating, need to be maintained and this is not possible if there is drastic loss of fluids.

What to look out for

Children can become dehydrated very quickly. During the early stages of dehydration, a child may complain of extreme thirst and young children may become very irritable. Suspect dehydration if you notice any of the following: chapped lips, oral dryness, restlessness and dry eyes.

Signs of advanced dehydration in infants include a weak pulse, shallow breathing and a blue tinge to the skin, which also feels cold to the touch. With severe dehydration there is increasing weakness and lethargy and the urge to drink may be lost.

A valuable method of assessing dehydration in children is by gently pinching up the skin on the side of the abdomen. On releasing, it should immediately return to normal. When dehydration is present, the skin fold takes much longer to return.

What to do

Taking extra fluids by mouth is the obvious treatment for dehydration. A solution consisting of half a teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar in a litre of previously boiled water is easily made and suitable for mild cases of dehydration. Rehydration salts in packets are also available.

Dehydration can lead to serious medical complications, including damage to internal organs such as the liver, kidneys and brain. Consult a doctor immediately if a child's skin feels cold to the touch, he/she appears dizzy or disorientated, has chapped lips or a dry mouth and has low blood pressure. If the child is unconsciousness or unable to drink, fluids can be administered via a tube inserted into the stomach.

If vomiting is constant and the situation more serious, intravenous rehydration may be necessary. Electrolytes (sodium and potassium) are also lost when someone has become dehydrated and acid-base balance is disturbed. These imbalances also need to be corrected.

(Liesel Powell, Health24, December 2009)

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