Malaria, cholera, typhoid, dengue fever . . . the list of potentially-deadly diseases that we face overseas is long and frightening. We do what we can to avoid them - taking prophylaxis, using bug spray, drinking only purified water - yet we still face the possibility of contracting on of these sicknesses.

I am no medical professional - I have had basically no training, and my husband has had just a little. Yet in our three years in West Africa, we were forced to study and learn to diagnose many common illnesses as we raised our children without good access to medical care. {Let me put a plug in here for Missionary Medical Intensive. We highly recommend their training if you are living in a location with poor medical care. We also highly recommend learning to use their "Village Medical Manual" even if you can't take the course - we use the manual in America too, not just in Africa!} One thing that I was surprised to learn was the true "killer" of most children in third-world countries. It's not malaria or cholera, although these may be the root cause - the actual cause of death in many, many cases is dehydration. And it can happen just as easily with a case of the stomach flu in America as it can with malaria or typhoid overseas!

Please realize I am NOT minimizing the dangers of these tropical diseases. However, I do want to HIGHLIGHT the danger of dehydration! Recognizing and treating dehydration quickly can mean the difference between life and death. The younger the child, the more serious the threat of dehydration. So what are the warning signs of this dangerous condition? And what can you do to treat it?

Any of these signs indicate that your child is dehydrated or is becoming dehydrated:

  • More than six hours without urinating
  • Dark yellow, strong-smelling urine
  • Lethargy
  • A dry, parched mouth and lips
  • No tears while crying
  • Sunken fontanelle (soft spot on baby's head)

These signs indicate that your child may be seriously dehydrated:

  • Less elasticity in the skin (doesn't "bounce back" when pinched into a fold)
  • Sunken eyes
  • Hands and feet that feel cold and look splotchy
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or delirium
  • Excessive sleepiness or fussiness

 Obviously, prevention is the best cure. If your child is running a fever, he needs more liquids than normal and will probably not feel like eating or drinking. You will need to work and make sure he is staying hydrated. Don't wait until your child is showing signs of dehydration before you start giving him extra liquids. Any vomiting or diarrhea can cause dehydration very quickly, especially in a younger child or infant. If you need to, use a teaspoon or medicine dropper to give your child a small amount of liquid every few minutes. Seriously, set a timer if you need to and make sure your little one is getting a sip LITERALLY every 5 minutes. This could save you a trip to the hospital, depending on the cause of vomiting or diarrhea.

If your child is showing signs of mild dehydration, you can still get on top of things. Use Pedialyte or an ORS powder if available, or make your own rehydration fluid (ORS recipe below). Get your child to drink as much and as frequently as possible. (With vomiting, frequent tiny amounts are essential, do not let your child gulp large amounts or it will probably come right back up!) If your baby is breast-feeding, let them nurse as often and as much as they are willing. Fluid replacement can take more than 24 hours, so keep pushing the liquids even if your child begins to feel better.

For severe dehydration, your child may need IV fluids in the hospital. If you feel that your child is not improving or is getting worse, or if you are not able to keep any fluids down at all, see a doctor right away.

Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) Recipe:

Combine 2 Tbsp (6 tsp) granulated sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 liter water. Be accurate in your measurements! Mix well until salt and sugar are dissolved. This will keep in the refrigerator for several days, or at room temperature for 24 hours.

 Do you have any tips or wisdom to add? Any stories to share about a time that your child was sick and in danger of becoming dehydrated?

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