What Is Skin Turgor?

Ability of the Skin to Change Shape and Return to Normal

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Skin turgor refers to the elasticity or firmness of your skin. When you pinch the skin on your hand, it should spring back to normal once you let go. How quickly it returns to normal is how you can measure your skin turgor. When your skin turgor is decreased, or your skin does not bounce right back, it could be a sign that you are dehydrated.

Older woman's right hand pinching her left hand
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Causes

Assessing skin turgor can be a way to diagnose dehydration. People who are dehydrated may experience skin tenting, which happens when you pinch your skin, and it stays up in a tent shape once you let go.

How Dehydration Affects Skin Elasticity

Like every other organ in our body, our skin is made up of mostly water. When our skin lacks moisture, it can’t function as well as it normally does. Well-hydrated skin has less friction between its fibers because the water acts as a lubricant. When our skin is dehydrated, it feels stiff and can’t spring back after being pulled or pinched.

Causes of dehydration include:

Other Signs of Dehydration

Further signs of dehydration include:

  • Dry mucous membranes
  • Dry skin
  • Reduced sweating
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Racing heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Confusion or cognitive impairment
  • Reduced urine output

Test of Skin Turgor

If your doctor suspects you may be dehydrated, they will most likely test your skin turgor. This test is quick, painless, and noninvasive, so it is usually one of the first tests to try. Your doctor will gently pinch your skin and then time how fast it snaps back into place.

A similar test your doctor may perform is your capillary refill time. This involves pressing down on one of your fingernails until it turns white, then releasing pressure and counting how many seconds it takes for your nail’s color to return. The longer your skin takes to spring back, the more dehydrated you could be. 

Challenges in Older Adults

As people age, their bodies go through physiologic changes that put them at higher risk of becoming dehydrated. Older adults are more likely to become dehydrated for a number of reasons:

  • Total body water is reduced by up to 15% as people age.
  • The body stops concentrating urine as much as it used to, leading to greater urine output.
  • Hormonal changes can reduce the sense of thirst, leading to inadequate fluid intake.
  • Some older adults purposely restrict their water intake due to incontinence problems.
  • Older adults lose more fluid through their skin, gastrointestinal (GI) tract. and lungs than younger people.

The skin also changes with age and loses its elasticity. This can make it harder to diagnose dehydration in older individuals because their lost skin turgor may or may not be related to dehydration.

Because older adults are more likely to be dehydrated but also are more difficult to diagnose, it is crucial to have regular visits with a primary doctor and to call with any concerns whatsoever. 

Treatment for Skin Turgor

Anyone can become dehydrated, but it is usually more serious in children and older adults. People with chronic illnesses or those who exercise outdoors in heat are also at higher risk. In rare cases, dehydration can lead to serious health complications such as seizures and hypovolemic shock. 

While rare, some connective tissue disorders can affect your skin’s turgor. Scleroderma and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can cause your skin to become more elastic and tent more easily. The changes in skin turgor in these conditions are not related to dehydration.

Home Care

Mild changes in skin turgor, such as your skin slowly springing back in place after being pinched, usually indicate only mild dehydration and can be treated at home. Start by increasing your fluid intake, mostly with water. You may also want to incorporate electrolyte-replacement drinks.

When to See Your Doctor

If you notice your skin turgor is very different than normal, it’s time to talk with your doctor. For example, if you pinch the skin on your arm, and it stays tented after you let go, this could indicate moderate or even severe dehydration.

In addition, if you are unable to take in more fluids because of vomiting or diarrhea, you could quickly become dehydrated. Call your doctor right away for next steps.

If your doctor recommends coming to the office or emergency department, the provider will start by asking you questions about your symptoms and how long they have been going on.

They will also ask about your fluid intake and how often you are vomiting or using the bathroom. They may ask if you have noticed other signs of dehydration like dark yellow urine or a lack of sweating.

Tests to Assess Turgor

To assess your skin, your doctor will first inspect it simply by looking. They will be looking for any areas of redness, discoloration, or open sores. Your doctor may then touch your skin to assess the temperature.

To check turgor, your doctor will most likely gently pinch the skin on your hand, arm, or abdomen and then note how fast it returns to normal. Your doctor will simply count and record how many seconds your skin takes to bounce back.

Your doctor may order blood tests to check your electrolyte levels. This will give them a better idea of how dehydrated you are.

Treatment for dehydration is simply fluid replacement. If you are unable to drink due to nausea, your provider may place an IV to give you intravenous fluids. You may also receive medication to stop the vomiting or diarrhea.

A Word From Verywell

If you have noticed that your skin turgor has changed, you may be feeling unsure about what to do next. It may be helpful to remember that most cases of dehydration are mild and can be successfully treated at home with increased water intake.

If you are concerned about being dehydrated, are experiencing new symptoms or are unable to consume fluids because of vomiting or diarrhea, call your doctor. Together, you will develop a comprehensive plan for treating your dehydration and staying well-hydrated in the future. 

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