Most people know what thirst feels like. It’s an uncomfortable sensation felt in your throat coupled with an urge to drink water. Some of us relieve our thirst by going to the faucet and filling up a glass from the tap. However, others struggle to solve the problem with such ease. For the 884 million people worldwide who don’t have access to safe drinking water, dehydration can become chronic.

Chronic dehydration leads to problems more serious than the temporary discomfort of acute dehydration. Healthline reports that chronic dehydration occurs when your body goes through long stretches of time without enough water. It’s a widespread issue; a study across Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay found that one third of adults did not meet the recommended adequate intake of water.

A man drinks water from an outdoor faucet. Drinking enough water is the best way to prevent chronic dehydration, but many people don't have access to an adequate supply of drinking water.
Image credit: Pexels

Acute vs Chronic Dehydration

The human body needs water to operate optimally. Water plays many roles in maintaining bodily functions like oxygen delivery, joint lubrication, digestion, and cell survival. When somebody doesn’t take in enough water, they can enter a state of acute dehydration. The Mullen Natural Health Centre associates acute dehydration with “dark coloured urine, extreme thirst, dizziness, and even rapid heartbeat.” When this acute dehydration is left untreated or is recurring, the body becomes chronically dehydrated.

Symptoms of Chronic Dehydration

Chronic dehydration leads to skin dryness, perceived hunger, headaches, constipation, temperature dysregulation, fatigue, muscle weakness, and muscle cramping. Mayo Clinic reports that chronic dehydration can cause urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and kidney failure. Mild dehydration can cause irreversible damage to the kidney when it’s recurring. Chronic dehydration can also lead to high blood pressure and muscle damage. 

Beyond its physical symptoms, chronic dehydration can also have negative cognitive effects. Acta Paediatrica found that dehydration adversely affects cognitive function in school-aged children, and the British Journal of Nutrition reports that “severe dehydration has been shown to cause cognitive deficits such as short-term memory and visual perceptual abilities as well as mood disturbance.” In fact, being dehydrated by just 2%  has negative effects on attention, immediate memory, and psychomotor skills.

On top of these cognitive disturbances, dehydration negatively impacts emotional wellbeing. Even mild dehydration can contribute to “low energy, anxiety, nervousness, depression, and trouble thinking clearly” due to dehydration’s effects on serotonin and dopamine balances.

Risk Factors

Anyone can become chronically dehydrated, but certain risk factors increase the likelihood that someone will suffer with this condition. One of the predominant risk factors for becoming chronically dehydrated is having sporadic access to drinking water. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine states that women should drink 2.7 liters of water a day while men should drink 3.7 liters, but many people around the world struggle to access this amount of potable water. For example, 32% of Ugandans must travel for upwards of half an hour to access safe drinking water, and 7 million Ugandans do not have access to safe water at all.  

Maintaining long-term adequate hydration is important for preserving physical and cognitive wellbeing, but for many, it’s an unreachable goal.

Main Takeaways

To people living in places without clean drinking water, dehydration can become more than an inconvenience and develop into a chronic health issue. Chronic dehydration has serious ramifications on the body, including temperature dysregulation and muscle damage. Over time, dehydration also reduces cognitive functionality and impedes emotional wellbeing.

By partnering with us, you can join us in impacting people around the world by providing them with clean water and other sanitation resources. Follow along with our blog to keep up with the latest WASH issues and learn more about the global impacts of unsafe water.

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