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Dehydration occurs when the body uses or loses more fluid than it takes in. Dehydration can affect anyone, including toddlers.

On most days, people will replace fluids easily by drinking and eating as usual. However, diarrhea, vomiting, illness, and hot weather can all increase fluid loss and make dehydration more likely.

Caregivers should be aware of the warning signs of dehydration in toddlers because it can lead to serious health complications. In severe cases, it can even be fatal.

Read on to learn more about the signs, symptoms, and causes of dehydration. We also cover treatment and when to see a doctor. With proper care, treating dehydration is straightforward and leads to full recovery.

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An illness may cause dehydration.

If a toddler has a stomach virus, is vomiting, has diarrhea, or refuses to drink or eat, caregivers should monitor them for signs of dehydration.

Caregivers should bear in mind that the toddler may not understand the initial symptoms of thirst or dehydration or be able to communicate them to others. It is vital not to wait until the toddler is excessively thirsty before taking action.

Signs of dehydration in toddlers may include:

  • urinating less frequently
  • dry diapers, or no urination, for 3 hours or longer
  • no tears when crying
  • cracked lips
  • a dry mouth
  • sunken eyes
  • lethargy
  • decreased activity
  • sleepiness
  • crying or being fussy
  • dry or sticky mucus on the tongue or the lining of the mouth
  • fast breathing
  • a rapid heart rate

Dehydration in toddlers occurs when there is more fluid leaving the body than coming in.

Some cases may result from toddlers not drinking enough water. However, it is sometimes possible that an infection, illness, or disease will lead to dehydration.

Risk factors for dehydration in toddlers include:

  • not drinking enough water
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • viral infections, such as rotavirus, Norwalk virus, and adenovirus
  • bacterial infections, including Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and Clostridium difficile
  • parasitic infections, such as Giardia lamblia, also known as giardiasis
  • excessive sweating due to fever or hot weather
  • a fever
  • chronic illnesses, including diabetes, bowel disorders, celiac disease, and cystic fibrosis
  • a reaction to medication
  • hot and humid weather

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A doctor may need to carry out tests to diagnose the cause of dehydration.

To understand the cause and severity of a toddler's dehydration, the doctor will consider their medical history, discuss their signs and symptoms with a caregiver, and carry out a physical examination.

The doctor may also order specific laboratory tests to help them determine the optimal treatment. The tests for causes of dehydration may include:

  • a complete blood count to look for infections
  • blood cultures to check for infections
  • blood chemistry tests to identify electrolyte imbalances, in cases of diarrhea and vomiting
  • urine tests to look for bladder infections, determine the severity of the dehydration, and check for uncontrolled diabetes
  • chest X-ray
  • testing for rotavirus infection
  • stool analysis
  • a lumbar puncture to test the spinal fluid

Caregivers can usually treat dehydration in toddlers at home. The first step in treatment is to replace lost fluids with oral rehydration liquids that are designed to replace electrolytes and sugar.

People can find over-the-counter (OTC) oral rehydration products in grocery stores, drug stores, or online.

Clear soups, popsicles, and ice chips can help with rehydration, especially if a toddler refuses to drink water. If the toddler is still breast-feeding, they should continue to do so alongside the rehydration solution and their solid diet.

If a toddler needs medical treatment, their doctor may provide rehydration in the form of an IV solution.

Toddlers who have been ill can begin eating again when they have not vomited for 4 hours. For decades, people have used the BRAT diet, which consists of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, to ease diarrhea and vomiting in children.

Although this diet is safe and gets positive anecdotal feedback, there has not been any comprehensive research to confirm how well it works.

However, a 2016 single-blind randomized controlled trial found that rice soup was effective alongside a prescription oral rehydration solution for children aged 8–24 months with acute diarrhea.

Caregivers should take a toddler with any of the following symptoms to see a doctor:

  • no urinating for over 3 hours
  • more urination than normal
  • diarrhea that lasts for more than 24 hours
  • dry mouth
  • crying without tears
  • bloody stool
  • sunken eyes
  • fever of 102°F or above
  • abdominal or rectal pain
  • decreased activity levels

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Severe dehydration requires emergency treatment.

Dehydration can become severe.

If it is not possible to reach a doctor, it is vital to contact the emergency services or go to the local emergency room if the toddler:

  • has a dry mouth
  • has severe stomach pain
  • is lethargic or difficult to wake up

By being aware of the risk factors for dehydration and replacing fluids promptly, caregivers can often prevent dehydration in toddlers. The following techniques can also help:

  • If a toddler is vomiting, has diarrhea, or shows early signs of dehydration, give them an oral rehydration solution as soon as possible.
  • When it is hot and sunny outside, allow toddlers to acclimatize to the heat slowly.
  • Ensure that toddlers are drinking enough water throughout the day, especially if they are unwell or it is a hot day.
  • Give toddlers plain water instead of sugary soft beverages because sugary or salty foods and beverages can lead to dehydration.

In most cases, toddlers become dehydrated because of a simple viral infection. Dehydration during illness can cause unpleasant side effects and serious complications, and it can be fatal without treatment. Therefore, it is crucial to prevent and treat dehydration.

Giving the toddler enough fluids using oral rehydration fluids, or an IV when necessary, should ensure that they make a complete recovery.