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What is Water Poisoning?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Water poisoning is caused by excessive consumption of water during a short period of time. This leads to a disruption in normal brain function due to the imbalance of electrolytes in the body’s fluids. Humans are made up of approximately 55 to 65% water, depending on gender, so water is necessary to survive. Water in and of itself is not toxic by any means, but rapid ingestion of a large quantity of water can dilute the careful balance of sodium compounds in the body fluids.

Our body has a balanced method of processing and excreting fluids, either through urine or perspiration. Over-diluting the sodium and potassium levels in the blood plasma through excessive consumption of water is called hyponatremia and contributes to what is called an osmotic shift of the fluid inside and outside the cells. The pressure from this action results in a swelling of the cells, often in the central nervous system, including the brain. This may result in water intoxication, which is not as serious as water poisoning, or as it is also called, hyperhydration.

When the cell membranes can no longer withstand the pressure, the cells can begin to die. This is indicated in more serious forms of water intoxication and water poisoning. Symptoms of this condition include lightheadedness, vomiting, headache, nausea and unresponsiveness. When the sodium in the blood plasma falls to dangerous levels, swelling of the brain, coma, seizures and possibly death may occur.

What constitutes a fatal amount of water can vary from person to person, depending on one's state of health, his or her physical activity at the time, the temperature and the amount of time in which the person consumes the water. For some, a one time consumption of six pints (three liters) can prove deadly. Although the person consuming the water may lose a lot of fluid due to perspiration during heavy labor or exercise, the electrolytes are not replaced fast enough to avoid water poisoning.

Those particularly at risk for water poisoning are athletes engaged in long distance running. Due to the need to replace large quantities of lost fluid, runners must drink a lot of water. This can lead to poisoning, so runners must replenish their fluids with sports drinks that have added electrolytes.

Other factors that contribute to water poisoning include the use of the drug ecstasy and hazing practices. Many “ravers,” while taking ecstasy, drink large quantities of water to avoid dehydration. Their reduced ability to reason can make this behavior dangerous. Many college students have been rushed to the hospital after consuming excessive amounts of water in hazing rituals. Psychiatric diseases can also lead to water poisoning. Psychogenic polydipsia is a condition in which the affected person feels a need to drink a lot of water for unknown reasons.

This condition is completely avoidable. For athletes, paying attention to how much water is consumed in one sitting, as well as using sports drinks to replenish lost fluids, is the best advice. When one feels thirst, the body is signaling dehydration, not an imbalance in electrolytes. It is commonly accepted among medical experts that it is more important to avoid dehydration than to attempt to avoid water poisoning. One should trust his or her instincts when drinking water and use common sense.

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Discussion Comments
By anon940860 — On Mar 20, 2014

@anon34656: You were lucky since your body reacted fast. Your stomach detected a great amount of water, and your brain responded by making you vomit that excess. Now go and thank your parents for giving you fast responding genes.

@anon35456: First, check if you are going to urinate frequently. If you are, then that means your body is eliminating that excess fast. If not, then go for a check up.

@anon120757: No, he didn’t get "water poisoning" since you never stated he drank a lot of water. Your son is/was affected by the bacteria that live in faucet water. Next time, have some water already boiled in jars on your kitchen. I always have one to avoid drinking water that has not been boiled.

@anon257730: No, since the fetus does not swim in water but in amniotic liquid, birth defects are based mostly genetic problems. Why you think people are advised to get a blood test to determine an RH incompatibility?

By anon360096 — On Dec 23, 2013

@anon259086: Jesus loved you enough to lay his life down for you so that you don't have to take your own. You remain here for a reason. Call out to Him for help. For whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Otherwise, I'm praying that God puts someone in your life to guide you toward the help you need. There is always hope my friend, always. I love you.

By anon343218 — On Jul 28, 2013

@anon259086: If you see this, please post another message. I hope you are okay, and, I know what depression feels like. It was so bad I thought I may die from it.

By anon261071 — On Apr 13, 2012

anon259086: I think you need help. Not suicide.

By anon259086 — On Apr 04, 2012

I think it must be extremely difficult to die or suffer any sort of serious repercussions from "water poisoning."

I am a severely depressed individual who has tried multiple different methods of suicide (none have worked, obviously). The most recent attempt - today - was seeing if water poisoning might actually provide me with the sought-after release. Between 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., I drank just under 10 liters of water. This gave me the runs, made my nose run and caused me to vomit repeatedly - mostly water which I immediately replaced with more water.

I am still here almost two hours later, so I'd say this is a less than perfect method.

By anon257730 — On Mar 28, 2012

If water poisoning kills, can water poisoning be linked to birth defects?

By anon133658 — On Dec 11, 2010

I had an audition today and tried to drink a lot of water so i wouldn't be dehydrated during the audition. I think i drank like seven glasses of water, and then afterwards i felt really nauseated and light headed. perhaps this could have been the start of water poisoning? I'm not sure but I'm glad that i didn't drink any more water than i did.

By anon128579 — On Nov 19, 2010

Dear sg2009: I've always been told to alternate between water and something like Gatorade when I exercise or work outside in the heat. The water keeps you hydrated and the Gatorade is supposed to offset electrolyte loss (through things like sweat) so your electrolytes remain at healthy levels. Remember that too much of either water or sports drinks can be bad.

As always do your research! One website may prove to be biased. Lots of luck, Me

By anon120757 — On Oct 21, 2010

the water in my home may of been mixed with the boiler water and drinking water because there was no back flow preventer on the boiler but now one is installed after i found out it wasn't installed and now my son is in the hospital with mental disorders. should i tell the doctor maybe it was water poisoning?

By anon101120 — On Aug 02, 2010

i need help. my son drank one and a half gallons of water. he can't go to the bathroom. is this water poisoning? he is 14 years old and has a bad stomach pain. what can i do?

By anon47633 — On Oct 06, 2009

i've tried cleaning my system out for meps and believe i have water poisoning real bad. i have pain in the chest and i'm light headed. i've been drinking a lot of water and discovered that i'm dribbling. i started taking salt and i don't feel so dizzy but the chest pain and headache are still pretty bad.

By anon44882 — On Sep 11, 2009

my husband went into the hospital for dry heaves. Two hours into the hospital he started talking crazy. He is disabled, but very alert. I was on the internet to find anything I could find, and I saw an article about sodium level, I called the hospital and asked them to check his sodium level. My God, his sodium level was critical and this morning the doctor said he has water poisoning! What next? I don't know. Any comments from water poisoning?

By anon35456 — On Jul 05, 2009

i am type 1 dibetic and drink a lot of water now i'm throwing up and have bad diarrhea. could this be water poisining?

By anon34656 — On Jun 25, 2009

I've drank so much water I've threw up and never had a problem as described above.

By sg2009 — On Apr 27, 2009

Is it OK to consume water during exercises (like during weights, Yoga or aerobics etc..)?

By rjohnson — On Feb 08, 2008

Not too long ago a woman died from water intoxication after entering a water drinking contest put on by a radio station.

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