How Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill You?

Water intoxication Ron cover

Water is the essence of life. Right after the air which sustains our existence, water keeps us alive and healthy, each and every cell of our body utilizes water. We can go on for a week without food but we can only last about 2-3 days without water. But what would happen if one is to go the opposite way and drink a little too much water? We are constantly told to drink more water, so it should be better for us right? Well, not exactly.

What is the limit?

As it is with everything in life, each and every individual is different and so is their capacity to drink water. To simply say a set amount won’t be right as various factors such as age, body proportions, and health affect this limit. Additionally, our kidneys being a great filter can flush out up to 25 liters of water a day, but the catch here is that kidneys can only flush one liter of water in one hour. So as you can imagine if you drink even 2 liters of water in one hour, your kidneys are overburdened, and consuming anything more than that will increase the risk of water intoxication.

Water Intoxication

70% water

A representation of water level in the body.

Even though our body consists of 70% water, it doesn’t mean that we cannot go overboard with it and cause serious damage to ourselves. Water intoxication or water poisoning occurs when copious amounts of water are consumed rapidly and brain function is disturbed. It causes a condition known as c, where kidneys are unable to flush any more water, and the electrolytes, especially the sodium gets diluted in the bloodstream. When the sodium levels are dropped below 135 milliequivalents/liter, it results in this condition. Sodium is responsible for regulating fluid balance, blood pressure, along with nerves and muscles and once it is diluted, excess water goes into the cell and causes them to swell up which can be especially threatening in the brain, as unlike other body parts brain does not have room to expand within the skull.

Dangers of Water intoxication:

As you can imagine it is a serious condition, especially when it comes to swelling of the brain. The following are the dangers that one faces upon being water intoxicated.

Swollen feet water

Swollen feet due to excessive water intake.

  • Due to the swelling of the brain, one experiences intense headaches.
  • Vomiting is another reaction of our body to having such large amounts of water. What makes vomiting even more dangerous here is that upon vomiting one loses the remaining electrolytes.
  • One feels the lack of strength in their muscles. As the imbalance of fluids within the body results in a lack of proper use of muscles.
  • Increased blood pressure is often seen in such cases due to dilution of sodium.
  • Having so much excess water can also result in blurry or double vision. As the water surfaces over the top of eyeballs resulting in such a condition.
  • Breathlessness also occurs due to this. As the brain is unable to function properly along with swollen internals results in the inability to breathe.

Few of these conditions or all of these combined can turn fatal and result in death.

Causes of Hyponatremia

It is obvious that drinking excessive water in a short duration leads to this condition. However, anyone in their right mind would never do such a thing, and chances of doing it by accident are even slimmer as our body quickly sends a signal to make us stop. So why exactly do people drink so much water rapidly?

Causes of too much water

An athlete is drinking water quickly.

  • MDMA: In today’s world it is no surprise that drugs like MDMA are taken by youngsters in music festivals and clubs all around the world. Being under the influence of such a substance, people tend to continue dancing for extended periods of time in hot conditions, and the fact that MDMA hikes the body temperature despite any physical activity does not help either. These two combined results in people consuming too much water too quickly resulting in water intoxication and if that was not enough, another effect of this drug includes urine retention. Therefore, kidneys are unable to flush out any water while more water is being drunk.
  • Sports: In sporting events, especially in marathons and other sports where one has to run constantly, they lose a lot of water through sweat. So the natural response is to drink as much water as one can to quench the thirst and replenish the lost water. However, it is important to understand that as one sweats, not only one gets dehydrated they lose electrolytes as well, and drinking just water will dilute them even further, so consuming water along with electrolytes is essential in these events.
  • Military Training: Unlike sporting events, where professionals and medical staff are constantly available to diagnose the issues, in military training the sole purpose is to train the individuals to be able to cope with extreme conditions. With this mindset, more often than not water intoxication is diagnosed as dehydration and leads to further complications.
  • Psychogenic Polydipsia: PPD or self-induced water intoxication is one of the rare scenarios where one compulsively drinks water. It is seen in mentally ill patients with schizophrenia. But it can also occur in people suffering from psychosis and personality disorder.

So is it fatal?

It is rare but yes, excessive water can most certainly kill you. It is seen in many cases either due to the lack of medical care in time or wrong diagnoses.

CT scan brain water intoxication

The damage of the brain progressing in three images.

  • Three deaths in the military: In one training session on a hot day, each and every member of the unit was facing heat issues and was feeling dehydrated and naturally three of these men drank plenty of water as well. However, they continued to do so and drank over 7 liters of water in few hours. Following this, they were facing headaches and other symptoms, but they were misdiagnosed and died in a rehydration attempt. Later on, it was also observed that they encountered cerebral edema as well, in which fluid builds up around the brain and it causes further swelling.
  • Runner’s death: A runner after finishing a marathon collapsed in the recovery area. He was attempted to be rehydrated but developed respiratory arrest in the emergency room and his sodium levels were dropped significantly. A CT scan of his brain showed that he had severe hydrocephalus and brain stem herniation despite intraventricular draining, however, he died. Doctors later found out that he had suffered from a thunderclap headache and also subarachnoid hemorrhage, this explains why he developed such a complicated and severe condition even with mild rehydration attempts.
  • Competitive death: At a competition, where 18 participants entered to drink as much water as they could without urinating to win a gaming console led to the death of a woman. She won the competition, followed by the event she jokingly said she was feeling light-headed to the talk show host but as the hour passed she developed a splitting headache and vomited. She went to work and as she couldn’t handle it anymore she went home and after reaching home she probably slept, where she was found dead by her mother.

In conclusion, yes, too much water can kill you. It is always important to listen to the signals our bodies send us to stop, as anything in excess is detrimental, even the element that sustains life in the first place.

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