Most of us know that summer weather can put us at risk for dehydration if we don't get enough fluids. But drinking plenty of water each day is just as important in winter.
According to a report from the Health Care Financing Administration, dehydration is a frequent cause of hospitalization among people over 65, and research shows that about half of those hospitalized for dehydration die within a year. Nearly a third of all cases of serious dehydration result from pneumonia and flu, which peak during the winter.
"Dehydration is often associated with sweating and hot weather, but it's a serious problem during the winter months as well, especially among children and the elderly," says Dr. Robert Fuller, head of the University of Connecticut Health Center's Emergency Department. "Dehydration can be life-threatening. It occurs when the body or its tissues lack water. This is not unusual during the winter months, when heating systems add to the already dry winter conditions."
Although an overwhelming majority of Americans know that drinking water is healthful, statistics show that many are not drinking enough, especially in winter. A national consumer survey released by Yankelovich Partners for Rockefeller University in New York and the International Bottled Water Association revealed that 37 percent of respondents mistakenly believe the body needs less water when the weather is cold than when it is warm.
After oxygen, water is the human body's most important nutrient. It constitutes more than 70 percent of the body's tissues. It has an important role in nearly every major function, such as regulating temperature, carrying nutrients and oxygen to cells, removing waste, cushioning joints and protecting organs and tissues.
"Without proper hydration, the body is exposed to a variety of health risks," said Barbara Levine, director of Human Nutrition at Rockefeller University . "Long-term, more severe dehydration poses serious problems that dangerously affect blood pressure, circulation, digestion, kidney function and nearly all body functions."
Dehydration symptoms can include decreased urine output, parched mucous membranes, weakness, lightheadedness, dizziness, drop in blood pressure and confusion.
While nothing beats a glass of cold water on a hot day, doctors say, seniors may not feel as thirsty during the cold weather, which means getting the necessary daily water intake takes conscious effort. And when a person has a fever or any kind of respiratory illness, the need for fluids increases even more.
Dr. Gerard Kerins, assistant professor at the UConn Center on Aging, says that when upper respiratory infections or stomach viruses hit, some elderly people can become seriously dehydrated within hours.
"Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or adverse reactions to antibiotics can cause dramatic losses of fluid very quickly in older adults," Kerins said. "It's important to drink lots of liquid when you're sick even if you don't feel thirsty. If you're a caretaker, it's important to monitor [patients'] fluid intake very closely to be sure they're maintaining adequate levels."
If you are struck with a fever, diarrhea, nausea, and / or vomiting, drink beverages such as water, soft drinks and juices, and eat a light diet of foods with a high water content, such as broths, soups, gelatin desserts, ices and fruits. Sucking on ice chips or frozen juice pops can also help contribute to fluid intake. Avoid alcohol, which can act as a diuretic.
"Don't rely on your thirst to determine whether or not you need water," Kerins said. "Many symptoms of dehydration don't appear until significant fluid has been lost."