Every year thousands of people become stranded and trapped in their vehicles for hours on end after accidents, weather-related road closures, highway pile-ups, or vehicle malfunction. While waiting, one of the many risks they suffer is dehydration.
Dehydration occurs when you do not consume enough fluid to replace the amount lost throughout a period of time. When your body’s fluid balance becomes off-kilter, your brain signals your kidneys to secrete excess fluid and stimulates your mouth so you’re aware of the fact that you’re thirsty. When you don’t rebalance your fluids, your body can suffer catastrophic consequences.
Although many people don’t think dehydration is a big deal, when you’re stranded without water, it becomes a life-threatening issue. Water is necessary for the body to digest and absorb vitamins and nutrients. According to information from the Mayo Clinic, when you deny your body the fluid balance it requires, tissues can become damaged, organs can fail, your brain can swell, you could slip into a coma, and your kidneys can shut down—any one of which could lead to death. This is why it is important to understand dehydration and its year-round risks for motorists.
Weather Dehydration Risks for Stranded Motorists
Although dehydration is usually associated with warm weather, several studies performed by the University of New Hampshire have found that when it comes to dehydration, cold weather is just as dangerous, if not even more.
Warm Weather Risks
When stranded in your car in the summer heat, it doesn’t take long for you to become thirsty. However, if you don’t have any fluids with you, that thirst can quickly turn into harmful dehydration as a result of:
- Sweating. Your body’s natural defense to regulate your body temperature is to secrete sweat in order to cool your skin down. Unfortunately, by secreting fluid, your body is essentially losing that fluid without being able to replace it.
- Overexertion. Overexerting yourself by panicking, feeling claustrophobic, being too active, or attempting to break out of your car will cause your temperature to rise, thus causing you to sweat more. More sweating increases your chance of dehydration.
- Refusal to drink warm liquids. When sitting in a 90 degree oven (your car), the last thing you want to do is drink warm water or pop. However, your body doesn’t care if the fluid is warm, as long as it is wet. By refusing to drink it, you increase your odds of dehydration and injury.
Cold Weather Risks
Although heat is a big factor in fluid loss, becoming stranded in cold weather can result in dehydration without you even knowing it. In warm weather, when your body loses water, it triggers thirst; however, your brain doesn’t elicit the same response when the temperatures are low. Therefore, although you’re suffering from dehydration, you may not even realize it. Contributing factors are:
- Not feeling thirsty. In order to conserve heat in cold weather, your body decreases blood flow to your extremities (conserving blood flow to internal organs). Since blood flow is maintained in the brain, it doesn’t detect variations in fluid balance, and therefore doesn’t signal your body that you’re thirsty. Cold weather actually decreases thirst by up to 40% as a result, even when your body still requires the same amount of fluid
- Sweating under clothing. To combat the cold, you should layer your clothing to prevent hypothermia. However, although you may feel cold, your body will still attempt to regulate your skin’s temperature by sweating. This leads to the clothing nearest your skin becoming wet and cold, prompting you to put on more layers, leading to more sweating and fluid loss.
- Unintentional loss of moisture through breathing. A great deal of water is expelled from your body in cold weather due to respiratory fluid loss. Not only do you breathe heavier and faster (trying to take in the cold air), but every time you breathe out, you can literally see the water droplets as steam.
Protect Yourself and Your Family From Dehydration
Although you can never predict when or where you may be stranded in your car, you can be prepared. Make sure you keep bottles of water in your emergency car kit, as well as heat packs to defrost frozen water. This will allow you to stay well hydrated and help keep you alert.
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