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What is Water Intoxication?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Water intoxication, which can lead to hyponatremia, is a serious medical condition which results when someone drinks too much water too quickly. This 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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon975702 — On Oct 28, 2014

Our grandson was taken from us because the office of children's services accused my wife and me of medical neglect. The reason they came up with is CPT-1A deficiency.

The information I read about this deficiency does not match our grandson's symptoms. In any case, after a weary battle, we lost him, he is adopted to people we don't know and they are not our relatives as the OCS claims in their court statements. Our grandson was adopted out without our consent or knowledge.

After our parental rights were terminated, OCS slipped at the tongue and told the court that the deficiency has miraculously disappeared. This is medical fraud.

By anon244724 — On Feb 02, 2012

I recently overdosed on water. My predominant symptom was profound weakness and altered consciousness. I felt as though I was going to lose consciousness at any moment. Luckily, I was at work at a hospital when my symptoms developed and I just walked myself (barely) down the hall to the ER.

My sodium level was 124. The critical level for sodium at my hospital is less than 120. I had been drinking a lot of water for a few days to help with heart palpitations. ( I was told by a doctor two days earlier that I had symptomatic PVCs and to drink more fluids). While at work I started feeling crappy and was having heart palpitations so I started to drink more water, thinking it would make me feel better.

Before I knew it I had drunk about three or four 32-ounce glasses of room temperature water within an hour. I still can't believe I did this. It is very dangerous!

By stolaf23 — On Nov 14, 2010

@watson42 I have heard that too. Some nutritionists believe that 64 ounces is necessary, others think that people get most of their water from food, others say anywhere from .5-1 oz of water per pound body weight per day, or even more. I have also heard that scientists disagree on whether or not thirst is an indicator dehydration. From all I've read, I would imagine the safest route would be simply to drink when you're thirsty, and stop when you're not, just like eating.

By watson42 — On Nov 14, 2010

Fatal water intoxication is similar to drowning, although it kills more because of the lack of sodium and electrolytes than the actual drowning itself. Among nutritionists, there is a great amount of argument about how much water is too much or not enough, and things like water intoxication have increased the disparity of opinions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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