Digestive health

Is your child dehydrated?

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Dehydration is very common among children and can be life-threatening, particularly when caused by diarrhoea or gastroenteritis.

In South Africa, diarrhoeal disease is the primary cause of death in children under the age of five. Prof Duncan Steele, Director of the MRC Diarrhoeal Pathogens Research Unit of the University of MEDUNSA, says it's believed to be the cause of 160 to 200 deaths per day.

Statistics of the City of Cape Town's health department show that 11% of children under five died of gastroenteritis in the greater Cape Town area in 2005. And according to the World Health Organisation, four to five million children die each year from diarrhoea in Africa, Asia, Latin America and India. This high incidence is usually associated with contaminated food and water and unhygienic conditions in poverty-stricken communities.

Babies and toddlers have a small body mass and lose fluids and electrolytes more rapidly than adults when they're dehydrated. Causes of dehydration range from gastroenteritis with persistent vomiting or diarrhoea to high unrelenting fever, excessive sweating and overexposure to the sun or heat without sufficient fluid replacement.

Early detection of symptoms is essential in the prevention and treatment of dehydration. Use this table to check for dehydration levels in children:

Clinical signsSeverity: slight Severity: moderateSeverity: severe
General conditionsThirst/agitationThirst/agitation/irritabilityBent over/sleepiness/coma
PulseNormalRapid/weakRapid/weak
Front fontanelNormalSunkenVery sunken
EyesNormalSunkenVery sunken
TearsPresentAbsentAbsent
UrineNormalReduced in volume, concentratedNo urine for several hours
Weight loss4% - 5%6% - 9%10% or more

- (Health24, 2011)

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