Can Drinking too Much Water be Unhealthy or Even Dangerous?
Drinking too much water can be dangerous and has proven fatal . This may come as a surprise to dieters or to athletes who are told to be certain to get adequate fluids. The condition caused by drinking too much water is called water intoxication. It can have several possible effects, which can quickly cause an emergency medical situation.
While most people are safe drinking six to eight glasses of water a day, dieters or athletes may try to get an extra edge by drinking more. Especially high performance athletes like marathon runners may over-drink. This can result in an imbalance of the body’s electrolytes. Too much water can quickly deplete electrolytes like sodium compounds.
Rapid intake of too much water floods the inside of cells when sodium is depleted. This sodium depletion, called hyponatremia, can rupture the cells, either from extra pressure on the cells from without, or from pressure within flooded cells. As cells rupture in various parts of the body, certain symptoms emerge with rapidity. Severe vomiting and nausea are common. Headache may occur as the brain swells. A person may be confused or disoriented.
Symptoms progress and may include seizures, and coma. Untreated cases can and have resulted in death. The hazing incident in Chico, California that caused the death of Michael Carrington in 2005 was the direct result of drinking too much water. As well, Carrington was forced to perform exercises in a very cold basement. His death was noted as heart failure from water intoxication.
Runners have also collapsed by drinking too much water quickly. Some sports drinks replace electrolytes as they replace fluids. Yet not all drinks marketed as “sports drinks” are equivalent. Generally, a doctor will be able to tell one which drinks are the best when one is competing in sports. As well runners are now advised to drink when thirsty, instead of getting ahead of thirst. This helps reduce fluid intake to needed amounts in many cases, though most electrolyte replacing drinks are still better choices than water, which might be consumed in excess amounts to satisfy thirst.
Generally too much water is defined as water consumed above what the kidneys can process in an hour. Extremely healthy kidneys would be able to process about 30 ounces (approx .9 liters) of water in an hour. A person with kidney problems or with only one kidney should drink much less, as per doctor’s instructions.
The person with healthy kidneys could develop water intoxication by drinking about 2 to 3 times what the kidneys can process. For a person with kidney problems or with one kidney, too much water might be defined as just an ounce or two over the recommended amounts.
For people with healthy kidneys it should be perfectly safe to drink two cups of water an hour, and for the dieter, even one cup an hour will fulfill requirements for getting plenty of water. However, drinking too much water in rapid succession can prove fatal and should definitely be avoided.
What is Water Intoxication?
Water intoxication, which can lead to hyponatremia, is a serious medical condition which results when someone drinks too much water too quickly. Water intoxication is a common but unfortunate result of dares and fraternity initiations, and it can kill if it is not quickly identified and treated. It can also happen to athletes who drink too much after a match or to infants who are given too much water or heavily diluted formula. Hyponatremia occurs when the sodium levels in the body are heavily diluted, resulting in an overall loss of electrolyte balance.
Essentially, water intoxication drowns the cells of the body in fresh water. If a large amount of fluid is consumed over a short period of time, the cells will begin to swell because the kidneys cannot process the water quickly enough. The water starts to dilute the electrolyte levels in the body, and if enough water is consumed, the cells could actually burst. A low level of electrolytes can result in an irregular heartbeat, brain malfunction, and ultimately seizures and death. The condition is easily treatable in early stages by injecting electrolytes into the body and limiting water consumption until the body has begun to process the excess.
Athletes avoid water intoxication by drinking water with electrolytes added so that the balance of the body is maintained. Parents try to avoid putting their infants at risk by being aware of how much water they are consuming. Other individuals at risk include people who are becoming dehydrated by vomiting or diarrhea, who also lose large amounts of electrolytes, causing the effect of water intoxication although the body is not flooded with water. In this instance, fluids consumed by the patient are balanced with electrolytes to restore the cellular balance.
Water intoxication is also called water poisoning, and it is an apt name because it acts on the body almost like a toxin. Under normal circumstances, an individual will not drink enough water to result in water intoxication, but in a situation where judgment might be impaired by heat stroke, drug use, or psychological duress or distress, a large amount of water may be consumed too quickly. When combined with situations like drug usage and heat, it can be difficult to identify water intoxication as the primary cause of illness, making treatment difficult. Remaining aware of your water consumption and taking steps to keep your electrolytes balanced will help to prevent this rare condition.