Know the signs and avoid dehydration when travelling

The sands of time

There’s an often ignored malady that I suspect many of us have succumbed to when travelling, maybe without even realising it. It’s particularly easy to get struck down by this one, and it can really ruin at least a few days of your trip. I am of course talking about dehydration.

I’ve met quite a few people on various travels who have been convinced they were suffering from all kinds of things, from the flu through to food poisoning. I also grew up on a small tropical island where visitors would often be struck down with this malady.

I thought therefore that a post offering tips for noticing and avoiding this common traveller’s pitfall would be handy. We’ll start with:

How to recognise the early warning signs of dehydration

The weird thing about dehydration is that feeling thirsty is often not a symptom. I’m sure there’s an excellent reason for this, but usually when people have all the symptoms, and you suggest that dehydration might be an issue, they’ll say that they didn’t think of that because they weren’t thirsty. The human body – a constant medical marvel. Here are three easy indicators to look out for, although they might not all be present:

  • Feeling nauseous
  • Headache
  • Dark urine

Basically, if you’re an adult, and have ever experienced a hangover, then you’re already a bit familiar with what dehydration feels like.

Other symptoms that dehydration can cause

I think one of the main reasons that folks don’t think they are dehydrated, and instead have contracted some epic local disease / food poisoning, is the exciting array of symptoms that dehydration can cause, beyond the initial symptoms. Some of these may include, but are not limited to:

  • Lethargy
  • Flu-like aches and pains that will convince you you have something more serious wrong with you
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea – by this point the situation has gotten serious and you may convince yourself you have food poisoning. If you can’t keep liquids down, you need to head to a doctor or hospital for intravenous rehydration, like, now.
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Irritability – this one is particularly awesome for when you try and point out to people that they may be dehydrated
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry skin

Sand blowing over Farewell Spit

How to fix dehydration

The good news is that dehydration is remarkably easy to fix – although taking in liquids will probably not be enough. Dehydration is usually more than just a lack of fluids – you will have sweated out important salts and sugars, which cause the imbalance in your body. So as well as the liquid, you need to replace these.

  • Take in plenty of liquid, ideally water, to replace that which you have lost
  • Replace the lost salts with a sachet (or more) of oral rehydration salts, also known as electrolyte solution. These can be found in pharmacies or convenience stores, either in powder form, or as a sports drink.
  • If you can’t find rehydration salts or solution, you can make your own, based on world health organisation advice. Mix 2 tablespoons sugar, half a teaspoon of salt and 1 litre of water.
  • Rest. You will likely feel pretty awful, and your body needs time to recover. Spend some time in a cool, relaxing place, taking in plenty of the above, until you feel better.
  • As mentioned before, if you really can’t keep liquids down, get yourself to a medical professional for intravenous fluid replacement. Dehydration can kill, and quickly, so don’t take the risk.

As well as being easy to fix, the recovery time for dehydration is remarkably quick. I’ve seen people go from feeling like they are about to throw up to being perfectly fine in as little as ten minutes, after taking in fluids and rehydration salts.

How to avoid dehydration in the first place

When you arrive in a new country, particularly a warm one, the urge to get out and explore is likely to be fairly high. This was certainly the case with our arrival into Bangkok for example, where we launched into the thirty four degree heat on a fast paced and complex itinerary.

It didn’t take long before Vera in particular started to feel incredibly nauseous, and convinced herself that she’d already gotten food poisoning. I realised that we had probably just been overdoing it and loaded her up with rehydration salts and liquids, which are handily available in every 7-11 in Thailand. After ten minutes rest she was back to her city exploring self in no time at all, and has carried rehydration salts with her everywhere we’ve gone for the rest of the trip!

Our advice to avoid dehydration would be:

  • When you arrive somewhere which is much hotter than you’ve come from, schedule in a day or two to acclimatise and let your body get used to the heat and humidity
  • Take in plenty of liquids – an absolute minimum of 2 litres a day - and carry rehydration salts on you. Pre-emptive use of these isn’t a bad idea either. On day hikes in Australia, I’d easily go through five litres of water, as an example.
  • Go easy on the alcohol, at least for the first few days. I know, you think I’m crazy. Ah well.

And that’s it for dehydration! Have you ever suffered from this one? Got any tips to add to the above, or stories to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Note: we’re not medical professionals, and this post shouldn’t be seen as medical advice! If you’re feeling particularly crappy, the best people to advise you on your health are people who have spent a lot of time learning about healthcare, not some person from the internet you’ve never met. We’d like to think the above is pretty helpful, but it should be taken as a guide only, not life saving advice ;).

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