Digestive Health

Updated 06 August 2014

Is your child dehydrated?

Dehydration is very common among children and can be life-threatening, particularly when caused by diarrhoea or gastroenteritis. Use this table to check for dehydration levels.


Dehydration is very common among children and can be life-threatening, particularly when caused by diarrhoea or gastroenteritis.

In South Africa, diarrhoeal disease is the primary cause of death in children under the age of five. Prof Duncan Steele, Director of the MRC Diarrhoeal Pathogens Research Unit of the University of MEDUNSA, says it's believed to be the cause of 160 to 200 deaths per day.

Statistics of the City of Cape Town's health department show that 11% of children under five died of gastroenteritis in the greater Cape Town area in 2005. And according to the World Health Organisation, four to five million children die each year from diarrhoea in Africa, Asia, Latin America and India. This high incidence is usually associated with contaminated food and water and unhygienic conditions in poverty-stricken communities.

Babies and toddlers have a small body mass and lose fluids and electrolytes more rapidly than adults when they're dehydrated. Causes of dehydration range from gastroenteritis with persistent vomiting or diarrhoea to high unrelenting fever, excessive sweating and overexposure to the sun or heat without sufficient fluid replacement.

Early detection of symptoms is essential in the prevention and treatment of dehydration. Use this table to check for dehydration levels in children:


Clinical signs Severity: slight Severity: moderate Severity: severe
General conditions Thirst/agitation Thirst/agitation/irritability Bent over/sleepiness/coma
Pulse Normal Rapid/weak Rapid/weak
Front fontanel Normal Sunken Very sunken
Eyes Normal Sunken Very sunken
Tears Present Absent Absent
Urine Normal Reduced in volume, concentrated No urine for several hours
Weight loss 4% - 5% 6% - 9% 10% or more

- (Health24, 2011)


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Digestive Health Expert

Dr. Estelle Wilken is a Senior Specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. She obtained her MBChB in 1976, her MMed (Int) in 1991 and her gastroenterology registration in 1995.

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