Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Fluids (lack of) and dehydration

Everything in the body contains fluid (water). The human body must have a certain amount of liquid, and not having enough can be serious. Fluid balance means that the body’s fluids are properly regulated and in the right places. Swelling is too much water in the body. (See the section called “Swelling.”) Dehydration is not having enough water in the body or not having enough fluid where it’s needed in the body. Keep in mind that fluid comes from both food and drink, so a person who isn’t eating must drink extra liquids to make up the difference.

What to look for

  • Dry mouth and lips
  • Thirst
  • Dizziness, weakness, constipation (See the section called “Constipation.”)
  • Trouble swallowing dry food
  • Dry, sticky mouth that makes it hard to talk
  • Dry skin, skin that “tents” (stays up) when lightly pinched
  • A swollen, cracked, or dry tongue
  • Fever (See the section called “Fever.”)
  • Rapid weight loss (See the section called “Weight changes.”)
  • Little or no urine
  • Fatigue (See the section called “Fatigue.”)
  • Sunken eyeballs
  • Poor appetite and no thirst (Lack of hunger and thirst can be caused by dehydration.)

What the patient can do

  • Drink fluids. Sometimes iced fluids are easier.
  • Remember that food contains fluid. Try to eat fruits, vegetables, soups, gelatins, Popsicles, and other moist foods.
  • Apply lotion often to soften dry skin.
  • Try to get rid of the cause of dehydration, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. (See the related sections for information on these causes.)
  • Apply lubricant to lips to avoid painful cracking.
  • Fill a small cooler with juice boxes, bottled water, or other drinks and keep it next to you, if it’s tiring to get up.
  • Suck ice chips to relieve dry mouth if you can’t drink enough liquid.

What caregivers can do

  • Offer cold or cool liquids every hour or so.
  • Encourage the patient to eat small meals if they can.
  • Include moist foods, soups, and fruit smoothies (made with ice in a blender) as snacks.
  • Watch the patient’s urine output to see if it gets dark or the patient stops urinating.
  • Check with the patient often to be sure they haven’t become confused.
  • Stand nearby when they get up, in case of dizziness or fainting.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Can’t take in or hold down liquids, or if vomiting, diarrhea, or fever last for more than 24 hours
  • Has urine that is either very dark or only comes in a small amount, or if there is no urine for 12 hours or more
  • Becomes dizzy or feels faint when standing up
  • Becomes disoriented or confused

Last Medical Review: 11/05/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013