Most people think of dehydration as a summer hazard, but cold weather also presents you with a serious dehydration risk. 1
In this article, we’ll look at how dehydration occurs in colder weather, signs to watch out for, and effective strategies to prevent it.
Understanding Cold Weather Dehydration
On a hot day, the sweat on your skin is a visual cue that you’re losing fluids. In colder, drier air, however, sweat evaporates more quickly and doesn’t accumulate on the skin in the same way. That makes the fluid loss less obvious.2
During the winter, the body actually loses more fluid from respiration than on hot days. You can see this fluid loss in real time by looking at your visible breath in the cold air. The more your body exerts itself, the more water vapor it loses this way.2
The cold weather also affects the body’s ability to detect thirst (an early sign of dehydration), which means that most people drink significantly less water when it’s cold. Urine output also tends to increase as the cold moves blood and other bodily fluids from your arms and legs to your core.3
How to Recognize Cold Weather Dehydration
The signs and symptoms of dehydration vary depending on whether the condition is mild, moderate, or severe.
Signs of mild to moderate dehydration include:
- Increased thirst (though not always)
- Dry mouth or skin
- Fatigue or mood swings
- Decreased urine output or darker urine
- Dizziness or fainting
Dehydration that progresses to a more severe state can bring about symptoms including:
- Deep yellow or amber urine
- Significantly decreased or no urine output
- Dizziness or lightheadedness affecting the ability to walk
- Muscle cramps
- Poor skin elasticity
- Lethargy or confusion
While mild to moderate dehydration can be remedied by consuming fluids, severe dehydration may require medical treatment, including intravenous fluid replacement.
Proactively Addressing Cold Weather Dehydration Risks
Consume Lots of Fluid
Addressing the risk of dehydration in cold weather is similar to doing so in the heat. The best thing that you can do is to ensure you have water or beverages that are designed to help you replenish electrolytes accessible at all times, and to take small sips regularly all day. Three to six quarts per day (including fluid from food) is a good general guideline, but note that recommended fluid intake varies depending on a range of factors, including:
- Physical activity level
- Medical conditions
You can’t always rely on your thirst mechanism to tell you when you need to drink. It’s not as accurate in colder weather, and this can result in your body becoming moderately dehydrated before you feel the urge to drink something. A good rule of thumb is to drink four to six ounces of fluid every 20 minutes or so to keep your fluid levels consistent.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not just water that counts as fluid. Packing fresh fruits and vegetables in your lunch can help you stay hydrated, too.
Dress for the Weather
Your body loses heat more quickly when you’re wet, so dress for colder weather by wearing layers that you can easily take on or off as you get warmer or colder. Avoid using 100% cotton base layers, which are highly absorbent and pull moisture away from the body.
Take Frequent Breaks in Warm Areas
You should take frequent breaks in warm areas that are supplied with beverages. Coffee counts, but caffeine is a diuretic. Water and electrolyte beverages are always preferable.
Dehydration is a risk for everyone year-round, whether you’re in hot and humid conditions or cold and dry ones. Your body needs sufficient fluids to perform properly, no matter the season.