Treating Dehydration in People With Special Needs

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDOctober 29th, 2020

Caring for someone with an intellectual and/or developmental disability (IDD) has its fair share of challenges. From communication barriers to mobility limitations, caregivers have to be in tune with the physical and mental needs of their dependents 24/7/365—and sometimes, that responsibility can feel like a guessing game. To help you navigate the needs and monitor the health of your dependent, we’ve created this resource to discuss one of the most important healthcare considerations for patients with IDDs—dehydration. From the risk factors that make dehydration dangerous for disabled patients to the nonverbal signs of dehydration, this article umbrellas the things about dehydration that you need to be aware of if you care for someone with special needs.[availability_widget]

Why the Increase in Risk?

Fact: People with IDDs and physical disabilities are at higher risk for dehydration. This scary statistic impacts caregivers and their dependents who may struggle with physical limitations, communication barriers, and other developmental disabilities. Here are some examples of caregiving situations where the patient might struggle to communicate or quench their thirst:

Physically Disabled

Those with physical limitations may need assistance to rehydrate. Whether they are reluctant to ask for help or have no one available to assist, limited access to water and electrolytes can put them in danger of dehydration.

Nonverbal/Communication Restrictions

Communication barriers can exist for nonverbal patients or patients who have slurred speech. In these caregiving situations, communicating thirst to support staff can be frustrating and difficult to convey—resulting in unquenched thirst, which can increase the risk of dehydration.

Difficulty Swallowing

Some patients with IDDs have difficulty swallowing or altogether refuse to eat or drink. Without access to food with high water content or liquids, they can become susceptible to dehydration.

Common causes that can further increase a patient’s risk for dehydration include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Medications (blood pressure, diuretics, certain psychotropic and anticonvulsant meds)
  • Diabetes when blood sugar is too high
  • Hot outside temperatures
  • Depression

Increasing your awareness of your dependent’s hydration levels before, during, and after any of these episodes can help you stay on top of their health, be available for assistance, and offer you peace of mind as a caregiver.

Signs & Symptoms of Dehydration

In non-technical terms, dehydration refers to not having enough water and electrolytes in your system. Since many people with IDDs face certain challenges when it comes to quenching or recognizing their own thirst, caregivers should always be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of dehydration. Some common symptoms include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed face
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness or general weakness
  • Dry/warm skin
  • Dizziness
  • Dark, concentrated urine
  • Headaches
  • Tearless crying
  • Sunken eyes
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lack of sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat

A quick test that can help you evaluate hydration levels in a patient with an IDD is to lightly pinch the skin on the back of their hand. If skin elasticity is low, where the skin takes a long time to reshape, it could be a sign of dehydration.

The Best Treatment Starts With Prevention

Monitoring fluid intake to prevent dehydration is particularly important for those with IDDs and physical disabilities. For mild to moderate dehydration, symptoms can be remedied simply by drinking more water or administering oral rehydration solutions with electrolytes. That being said, the best “treatment” for dehydration is practicing prevention! Here are some ways to help keep loved ones with IDDs or physical limitations hydrated:

  • Offer water throughout the day instead of reserving refreshments for meals
  • Try to increase intake of foods with high water content (fruits and veggies!)
  • Always increase fluid intake at the first sign of illness (flu and colds)
  • Use the AC or set up a portable fan indoors when outside temperatures are high

If severe dehydration develops, it’s important to have symptoms medical addressed. In these scenarios, rehydrating your patients will likely require intravenous (IV) fluids.

DispatchHealth Offers an Alternative to the Emergency Room

Arranging transportation to the nearest emergency room for a patient with a physical disability and keeping someone with an intellectual disability calm in a foreign, medical environment can be stressful situations for everyone involved. Instead of facing these challenges alone, explore your options! DispatchHealth brings complex medical care out of an expensive hospital setting and right to your door for non-life-threatening conditions. This enables you to be safely treated and recover faster at a dramatically lower cost.


Contacting us is easy; simply reach out via phone, app, or through our website. Within a few hours of contact, one of our dispatched medical teams will arrive at your home or place of need. In response to COVID-19, our teams are also taking extra care in protecting themselves and patients. Learn more about our response and protective protocols here.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

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The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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