Water Intoxication: The Dangers Of Overhydration

By:    Published: August 24, 2012

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We've all heard about how great water is for the body and how you should be drinking lots of it every day. However, even with water, too much isn't always a good thing. Drinking more water than your body can handle can have some serious side effects that can lead to major health complications and even death. Read this article to learn more about water intoxication and the dangers of overhydration.

What Is Water Intoxication?

Water intoxication (also known as overhydration or hyponatremia) is a physical condition that results from an abnormal balance of electrolytes in the body. When an overabundance of water causes an imbalance between water and electrolytes in the body, cells start to swell up. This creates a very dangerous situation as swollen cells in the brain lead to intracranial pressure. As this pressure worsens, the blood flow to the brain can be interrupted, leading to dysfunction in the central nervous system, seizures, coma or even death.

Risk Factors

Typically, water intoxication is caused by drinking too much water. This is particularly dangerous with water-drinking contests where contestants are challenged to drink more than any other participant without urinating. In fact, several people have died from partaking in these challenges.

While drinking too much water is the main cause of this problem, there are also some medical conditions, physical conditions or lifestyle choices which come with a higher risk of water intoxication. Those conditions include:

  • Kidney disease, syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone (SIADH) and heart failure. With each of these conditions, the body's ability to excrete water is impaired, making water intoxication more of a threat.
  • Age. Many older adults have lower amounts of sodium (an electrolyte) in the blood, so the risk of an electrolyte imbalance is increased. Additionally, infants who drink too much water or diluted formula can suffer from water intoxication.
  • Hormonal changes. Certain changes in the adrenal gland or the thyroid can result in low sodium levels.
  • Severe vomiting or diarrhea. The extra loss of fluids and electrolytes can put people at risk.
  • Diet. A low-sodium diet also increases the risk for an electrolyte imbalance.
  • Drugs. Thiazide diuretics and certain pain medications and antidepressants may cause increased urination or sweating. Ecstasy also increases the risk for overhydration.
  • Climate change. Moving to or visiting a much hotter climate than you're used to can increase sweating and your risk for an electrolyte imbalance.

In addition to these risk factors, people who compete in endurance sports or who work outdoors in hot temperatures are also at a higher risk for water intoxication. These people are prone to losing more sodium through perspiration. As the athletes or workers drink large amounts of water to rehydrate themselves, they typically are unable to restore the level of sodium needed in the body to keep the proper balance, leading to hyponatremia.

Symptoms

The key symptoms of overhydration include:

In severe cases, overhydration can also lead to coma or death, so it is very important to be aware of these symptoms-particularly if you are at a higher risk for this condition.

Treatment

For mild hyponatremia, a reduction in the intake of fluids is often sufficient for solving the problem. Eating a small amount of salty foods can also be helpful if you have lost excessive electrolytes by sweating. Keep a close eye on your symptoms to make sure that they don't worsen.

With more severe cases of hyponatremia, you may need to take medications to offset the feelings of nausea and headaches. If symptoms worsen, you may need to visit the hospital in order to receive intravenous (IV) fluids to even out the electrolyte levels in your body.

Chronic cases of hyponatrema may require hormone therapy depending on the causes behind the condition. In some cases, hormone replacements can be used to keep electrolytes balanced.

Prevention

The easiest way to prevent overhydration is to only drink as much water as you need. That amount will vary depending upon the amount of exercise you participate in and whether you have any conditions that increase your risk of water intoxication. But, in general, a person should use their urine color to determine their hydration level. Pale yellow urine usually indicates that you are drinking enough water, while a darker yellow mean that you need more water.

If you are participating in an endurance sport like a marathon or triathlon, focus on only drinking as much fluids as you lose due to perspiration during the competition. Consider drinking some sports drinks which include electrolytes during training and racing. These same methods apply to those who work outdoors in high heat conditions.

If you have a medical or physical condition that puts you at risk for overhydration, make sure you get proper treatment and take your medications as directed to avoid this issue.

When To See A Doctor

If you suffer from mild but chronic hyponatremia, ask your doctor if there are any changes you can make in your diet or medications in order to reduce your symptoms. You may also want to see an endocrinologist about possible hormonal imbalances that could be causing your symptoms.

See a doctor if you experience severe symptoms associated with water intoxication. If any of the symptoms become extreme or intolerable or if you have seizures or fear you may lose consciousness, get medical assistance immediately.

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