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7 Tips to Avoid Dehydration While Traveling

Electrolytes, rest and plenty of liquids can stave off dizziness, fatigue and high heart rate

spinner image a man with a backpack drinking water to stay hydrated
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It was an extremely hot summer day in Beijing. I had arrived in China from the United States the day before and had already scaled the Great Wall. This day was reserved for more outdoor sightseeing. We spent a long morning under the sun at the Summer Palace. The afternoon was reserved for concrete-clad Tiananmen Square and the expansive Forbidden City. At midday, it was a scorching 95 degrees, not counting the heat emanating from the pavement.

I hadn’t been hydrating much since arriving because it’s not safe to drink tap water in Beijing. It was no surprise that once inside the Forbidden City, I started feeling thirsty. Water bottles were not allowed into the fortress, and there were no beverages for sale.

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About 20 minutes later, my heart started palpitating. I went pale, and my mouth dried up. I went woozy and sidled over to collapse in the shade. I knew, from previous experiences with dehydration, that this was bad. I told the tour guide I needed to get to a hospital.

At the hospital, I was diagnosed with severe dehydration and heat exhaustion. Nearly four hours after I started feeling symptoms, I was put on an IV and ordered to stay the night. The next morning, an English-speaking doctor told me that my level of dehydration had been in the danger zone, that I was on the cusp of heatstroke and that not only was I depleted of water but also electrolytes, minerals essential for the body to function.

All the ingredients for a case of dehydration were there. Long plane flight, check. Intense exercise upon arrival, check. Brutal heat and bad air quality, check. Not enough water, checkmate.

Dehydration is a common enough scourge, even in daily life. Travel exacerbates its likelihood.

Older adults tend to be at a higher risk of being dehydrated, either because of underlying health conditions or the diuretic effects of medications they may be taking, says Kenneth Koncilja, M.D., a geriatrician at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Even so, no one, regardless of age, is immune. Dehydration can set in anywhere, anytime (for example, skiers may be affected due to high altitudes and heavy activity). However, according to Paul Takahashi, M.D., an internist and geriatrician at Mayo Clinic, a lack of liquid combined with summer temperatures create the perfect conditions not only for dehydration but for heat exhaustion or heatstroke as well.

According to Koncilja, the following are among the signs of dehydration:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • High heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion

If any of these symptoms strike, the medical experts say to immediately stop activity and drink fluids with electrolytes. Takahashi says a hospital visit, complete with IV and blood tests, may be necessary.

The good news is that dehydration while traveling can be easy to prevent by beginning the hydration process before a trip and continuing proper liquid intake throughout.

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To avoid the fate that befell me in Beijing, here are some crucial tips from Koncilja; Dana Cohen, M.D., coauthor of Quench: Beat Fatigue, Drop Weight, and Heal Your Body Through the New Science of Optimum Hydration; and Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, a medical travel service.

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Drink more water than usual, beginning a week before a trip, especially one involving long-distance travel, Bacheler says. Keep drinking in flight, upon arrival and throughout the trip.

2. Drink your electrolytes

Man cannot live by water alone. According to Koncilja, the amount of water in your body needs to be in balance with electrolyte levels for cells, muscles and organs to work properly. Too much water without electrolytes, as my attending doctor in China alerted me, can dilute mineral levels in your body. Therefore, it’s important to alternate water with fluids filled with salt and other electrolytes. Gatorade, coconut water and pickle juice can all do the trick. As those may not be available when on the road, pack electrolyte powder that dissolves in water.

3. Plane sense

Dehydration often sets in before landing, thanks to the dehydrating effects of air travel. Airplane cabins have very low humidity levels. To counteract the dryness, the general rule of thumb is to drink 8 ounces of water per hour (alternating with electrolyte-filled fluids). Koncilja further advises travelers to avoid diuretics such as coffee and alcohol in-flight.

4. Rest upon arrival

Take it easy within the first 24 hours of landing. Don’t plan for strenuous activity the first day or two after a long trip.

5. Eat your water

When nibbling, go for foods with high liquid content. Cohen recommends eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. She suggests packing chia seeds as well. These little nibs can absorb up to 30 times their weight in water, which helps fluid regulation.

6. Eat your electrolytes

Koncilja recommends snacking on foods containing electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium and calcium. Bananas, avocados, dried apricots, spinach and plain yogurt are all good bets.

spinner image a woman eating a slice of watermelon to replenish electrolytes
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7. Replenish

Carry water and electrolytes at all times. Bring a reusable water bottle, and pack electrolyte tablets or oral rehydration products.

Koncilja suggests visiting a doctor before a long trip to evaluate conditions that may compound dehydration. Consider purchasing travel insurance, which will cover you in case dehydration leaves you high and dry.

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