Everyone recommends drinking a lot of water, but did you know a lot can kill you? Water Intoxication is a common phenomenon.

Water IntoxicationWe all have heard about the dangers of alcoholic intoxication and to what consequences it can lead to including liver cirrhosis. Would you believe it, if I told you that drinking excess of water can lead to death? Shocking, isn’t it?

One of the world’s most gifted people Andy Warhol died of water intoxication. IN 2007, a 28 year old woman died as  a result of water intoxication, as a result of taking part in an excess water drinking competition.

She drank six litres of water in three hours, vomitted, had a horrible headache and passed away as a result at her home, owing to the severe destruction of the water balance of the body.

Countless examples exist including stories of student hazing at dorms where a student died after being forced to drink unlimited amount of water during pushups, a case of exercise imbalance inflicted rather cruelly.

Dilutional Hyponatremia Leads to Water Intoxication

Well it is not only shocking and unbelievable, but it is true. Water is considered to be the least toxic of all molecules and one of the most vital for life to happen on earth.  Officially known as hyponatremia (insufficient salt in the blood, concentration of 135 mm per litre)  water intoxication refers to the excessive drinking of plain water in a very short time, leading to an acute sodium imbalance in the blood, owing to the excessive dilution of the blood, which disturbs the electrolyte balance of the blood. Normal drinking of water do not cause this problem. It is suffered by those who take part in excess water drinking competitions as well as in athletes, if they undertake excess exercise without compensating for the fluid loss they may experience. Another way in which water intoxication occurs is during some methods of water torture where the victim is forced to drink excess amounts of water.

What Exactly Happens in Water Intoxication?Water Intoxication

Sodium balance is critical for nerve impulse transmission and regulating the fluid balance in the body and hence even this kind of low levels of sodium levels  will impede with the functioning of the body.  Presence of sodium outside the cells would ensure that excess fluid goes out of the cells and is circulated. At the beginning of the condition, there is a very low concentration of solutes such as Sodium and others used to maintain the electrolytic balance outside the cells and this causes an osmotic flow of fluid into the cells to balance the concentration of solutes and solvent.

The cells swell as a result and becomes turgid and tries to take in more water to balance the low sodium levels. If this keeps continuing without any limit, the pressure in the cells of the brain leads to increase in the intracranial pressure.

This pressure exerts its effect and you see the initial symptoms which include disorientation, personality effects, drwosiness, fatigue etc which is followed by breathing difficulties and difficulties in perceiving information. this  may then lead to more things such as cerebral edema and then lead to damage to the central nervous system. The kidneys also cannot cope up with the excess fluid intake and the blood becomes extremely diluted and leaves to places with high salt concentration leading to cells swelling with water,  Coma and then death can occur in extreme cases.

Symptoms of Water Intoxication

As a result, the person experiences severe dehydration, nausea, muscle cramps, disorientation and slurring of speech. In the extreme cases, it can even lead to death.

Different conditions where it occurs:

Hyponatremia is becoming more common nowadays as the popularity of endurance races grows. Hence, athletes are very susceptible to it and especially, those who have imbibed the largest quantity of water after a long period of sun exposure, as well as those who drink water before and during an endurance race. The situation occurs more so when the person is unaware of the problems with imbibing a large amount of water, especially after a prolonged exposure to heat and sweating where there is a loss of sodium as well as water during sweating.

Without the proportionate intake of sodium, just imbibing a huge amount of plain water severally throws the system out of balance, leading to the situation mentioned above. Infants also are at risk for over hydration especially during the early months of life, when the body’s kidney systems are not yet adapted to excreting out fluids.  Children under one year of age, are extremely susceptible to this kind of excess water absorption.People who have been working for long hours in the sun and who drink water suddenly without any control are also liable to this. They need to balance their food and fluid intake to prevent such things from happening. People who are drug takers as well as suffering from certain psychological ailments, can also suffer from this.

Water IntoxicationPrevention of Water Intoxication

Water intoxication can be prevented by ensuring that the intake of water does not exceed the losses.

The solution to avoid the situation is to plan your fluid intake and sodium replenishment in advance so that these issues do not crop. Some things you can do to aid in this include:

  1. Start preparing for such events early on
  2. Plan for sodium replenishment and ensure a build up of sodium in your body many days before the event by increasing salt intake in your diet.
  3. Drink isotonic water  during such events
  4. Keep your fluid intake lesser or equal to the sweat. In fact avoid drinking water during such events.
  5. Don’t drink water after a long and hard period of exercise.
  6. Water drinking competitions can pose such danger
  7. Drink water as only per requirement.
  8. For infants, avoid water. Only breast milk or formula food should be given which provides their required fluid component.

What happens if you start suffering from water intoxication? For mild cases, you can just control the fluids but for more severe cases, you may have to use diuretics to increase urination to control the blood volume. You can also use vasopressin receptor antagonists.

Image source:

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