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Are you thirsty or dehydrated? UMMC experts show how to tell the difference

Published on Friday, September 1, 2023

By: Annie Oeth,

Oversized water bottles and travel mugs are ubiquitous, but are you drinking enough water from them?

Not drinking enough water can cause symptoms ranging from mild to serious, but drinking too much water can also be dangerous. University of Mississippi Medical Center experts can help you answer your H2O questions.

Portrait of Josie Bidwell

"Problems can happen when a person drinks more than 48 ounces in an hour,” said Dr. Josie Bidwell, associate professor of preventive medicine and a nurse practitioner. “Regular drinking of water is fine, especially when eating foods that contain electrolytes.”

Among foods that are high in electrolytes are lentils, spinach, dried apricots and sunflower seeds.

Drinking more than a quart and a half of water an hour can dilute the body’s balance of sodium and electrolytes, which can be fatal.

UMMC bariatric lifestyle/nutrition coordinator Paul Robertson said those who are unprepared may struggle with adequate hydration.

“People leading busy lives may forget to take time to sip fluids throughout the day as part of staying hydrated,” he said. “Carrying a water bottle can be a helpful strategy to remedy this.”

While the amount of hydration needed by children and adults each day can vary by the individual as well as by climate, season and activity level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers more than just H2O in the hydration total. Foods such as fruits and vegetables have a high percentage of water.

Doctors say that, by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already showing one of the signs of dehydration.

"Watch your body for cues that you need to hydrate,” Bidwell said. “Thirst is one of them.”

Other signs that you may not be drinking enough water include headaches and brain fog.

Another signal that you’re properly hydrated is the color of your urine. “It should be a pale yellow,” Bidwell said. “If it is dark yellow, you may not be drinking enough water.”

Bidwell agrees that plain water is the healthiest thirst alternative.

“If you aren’t working outdoors in the sun or playing sports for an hour or more, you really don’t need beverages that replace electrolytes,” she said.

Hydration with other beverages can have the opposite effect.

“Caffeinated beverages and alcohol can add to dehydration because they are diuretic,” she said. Drinking those may quench thirst now but leave you less hydrated later.

Another hydration hazard is in calories, Robertson said.

“Water is always best,” he said. “Add a flavor enhancer if you get bored with plain water. Good options could be lemon, lime, cucumber or basil leaves. To remember to take a sip, set timers on your phone. Another helpful strategy to remember to sip fluids throughout the day could be to set a timer on your smart phone or use a fitness app such as your FitBit or Apple watch.”

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.