Language guiding therapy: the case of dehydration versus volume depletion

Ann Intern Med. 1997 Nov 1;127(9):848-53. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-127-9-199711010-00020.


Indiscriminate use of the terms dehydration and volume depletion, so carefully crafted by our predecessors, risks confusion and therapeutic errors. These two conditions should be distinguished at the bedside and in how we speak to one another. Dehydration largely refers to intracellular water deficits stemming from hypertonicity and a disturbance in water metabolism. The diagnosis of dehydration cannot be established without laboratory analysis of p[Na +] or calculation of serum tonicity. In contrast, volume depletion describes the net loss of total body sodium and a reduction in intravascular volume and is best termed extracellular fluid volume depletion. The diagnosis of this condition relies principally on history, careful physical examination, and adjunctive data from laboratory studies. The pathophysiology of both dehydration and extracellular fluid volume depletion must be understood if these conditions are to be recognized and appropriately treated when they occur separately or together. There is no inclusive therapy for all situations. For example, indiscriminate treatment with 0.45% saline cannot be recommended when these conditions coexist because extracellular fluid volume depletion is often treated rapidly with 0.9% saline and dehydration is often treated more slowly with 5% dextrose.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Dehydration* / etiology
  • Dehydration* / therapy
  • Extracellular Space*
  • Humans
  • Terminology as Topic*
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance