An inexpensive mixture of salt, sugar and water that has been saving the lives of thousands of infants in Third World nations may also prevent unnecessary hospitalization of the elderly, geriatricians at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center report.

The technique, called oral rehydration therapy, can restore the essential fluids and minerals lost during bouts of severe diarrhea. Its use in developing countries is estimated to have saved almost 1 million infants and children annually from death from the complications of diarrheal infections, according to UNICEF officials.

William B. Greenough and Richard Bennett, staff physicians at Francis Scott Key Medical Center in Baltimore, want to use the therapy in nursing homes and among other older people.

Oral rehydration therapy, sold commercially as Resol or Pedialyte for infants, or Ricelyte, a cereal-based product, is designed to aid in the absorption of liquids in the gastrointestinal tract.

Old people, especially those who have the condition of hardening of the arteries known as atherosclerosis, are in danger of heart, kidney failure and strokes through loss of fluids and electrolyte imbalance from diarrhea, Bennett said. If they begin taking these solutions as soon as diarrhea begins, they may not deteriorate to the point where fluids need to be administered intravenously in a hospital.

A person with a typical viral gastroenteritis might lose a couple of quarts of fluid a day, said Bennett, which could be life-threatening in an elderly person.

"Here we have a simple cheap tool that could prevent a hospitalization, or save a life," he added. Both he and Greenough have been urging nursing home administrators to use it.