Dehydration Hallucinations

Understand dehydration hallucinations

The human body is believed to be around 60% water. The fluid to salt ratio underpins many aspects of our health and normal bodily functions, making it necessary to keep ourselves well hydrated to avoid the side-effects associated with an imbalance. Are there remedies for dehydration hallucinations?

Dehydration is often associated with exercise and hot weather and dismissed as something that can be easily remedied by consuming more water during those times.

In fact, it is a serious health issue for the vulnerable - particularly the elderly and young children. With these groups of people, it is easy to underestimate how much fluid you need, and this can lead to serious health risks.

Symptoms such as headaches, muscle cramps and becoming light headed can be unpleasant. However, dehydration can also interfere with normal brain function, which can manifest itself as hallucinations.

Dehydration hallucinations are defined as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling things that don’t exist. Having this form of delirium can sometimes lead to misdiagnosis in the elderly, as their behavior and symptoms appear to be related to a dementia-causing condition.

As the elderly and young may not provide caregivers with verbal feedback that they are thirsty, hallucinations can be seen as “random” and inexplicable. In fact, at this point dehydration may well be at a dangerous level, and life-threatening.

How dehydration affects the brain which can cause dehydration hallucinations

As your body becomes starved of fluid, it reacts by sending signals to indicate thirst. Your body will decrease urinary output to conserve water. This makes urine more concentrated (so a stronger yellow color). If fluid is not replaced, the side effects will become even more serious.

This is because your body's blood flow – including to your brain – becomes decreased. Your blood pressure is dropping. Some of the first symptoms of this may be muscle cramps, fatigue or even heart palpitations.

If your brain is not getting enough oxygen due to the fall in your blood pressure, confusion and hallucinations occur. If this continues, serious organ damage becomes a risk and ultimately the person may die.

Origins of severe dehydration

When the human body uses a lot of fluids to function – such as sweating on a hot day or during exercise – it's important to replace that by drinking sufficient amounts of liquids. It is surprising how that is sometimes overlooked.

However, there are also other factors that can cause dehydration.

Diarrhea and vomiting – young children and elderly people can be particularly prone to stomach upsets. During these times they may be “shedding” a lot of fluid from their body, but they are unwilling or unable to replace it. It is believed that over four million children die each year globally as a result of dehydration caused by diarrhea.

Sweating – the body uses fluid to regulate its temperature constantly, not just during exercise or hot weather. So, for example, if someone is indoors a great deal and around central heating, they may well sweat copiously and become dehydrated. Or, if someone has an elevated temperature due to fever or infection, their body will attempt to cool them down by producing more sweat.

Diabetes – there is a good reason why excessive thirst and frequent urination are linked to this common medical condition. It can result in sugar leaking in the person’s “waterworks” and dehydration occurs.

Lack of access to fluids – sadly, severe dehydration can occur from simply being denied access to a clean and constant source of water. This is not just an issue in developing countries where droughts or polluted water sources are a problem. In some situations, vulnerable adults are simply not given sufficient hydration. Poor parenting skills can also result in dehydration among infants.

Lack of awareness - dehydration can be a self-perpetuating problem for the elderly too. They may be unable to fully comprehend or interpret signals from their brain that they are thirsty. Or, it is not uncommon for the elderly to become reluctant to consume fluids to avoid trips to the bathroom, or accidents. However, their age-related metabolism means they don’t conserve fluid as well as younger people.

Mild dehydration causes them to feel lethargic and tired, or even slightly confused. This, in turn, makes them less likely to take action to quench their thirst. Hallucinations and more extreme confusion compound the problem and their hydration level becomes critically low.

Remedies for dehydration hallucinations

For dehydration levels to be severe enough to induce this brain disorder, medical intervention is strongly advised.

As their brain is not receiving the chemicals and oxygen it needs, the person is suffering from sensory “misfires”, seeing, tasting, hearing and feeling things that don’t exist. They need to have their fluid levels restored quickly and effectively – and this often involves intravenous administration.

However, they may well also need to receive electrolytes - nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, sodium, and chloride which are normally present in the body to regulate such functions as heartbeat.

After the initial intervention, a regime needs to be put in place to ensure that fluid levels are fully restored and to support healthy functioning of the person’s body.

Action and prevention for dehydration hallucinations

Dehydration can be a life-threatening condition.

If a vulnerable elderly person or young child shows signs of the mental distress and confusion associated with hallucinations, it is important to address hydration quickly in case that is the root cause.

It is also important to educate caregivers to both spot the warning signs before hallucinations occur, or prevent dehydration entirely by supporting consumption of an adequate level of fluids throughout the day.

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Last Reviewed:
June 30, 2017
Last Updated:
October 17, 2017