Every cell in the body needs water to function properly. However, drinking too much can lead to water intoxication and have serious health consequences.
It’s hard to accidentally drink too much water, but it can happen, usually as a result of overhydration during a heat wave, sporting event, or intense workout.
Symptoms of water intoxication are general: they can include confusion, disorientation, nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, water intoxication can cause swelling of the brain and become fatal. This article describes the symptoms, causes, and effects of water intoxication. It also looks at how much water a person should drink each day.
What is water intoxication?
Also known as water poisoning, water intoxication is a disturbance in brain function caused by excessive water consumption. This consumption increases the amount of water in the blood. This can dilute electrolytes, especially sodium, in the blood. If the sodium level falls below 135 millimoles per liter (mmol/l), doctors speak of hyponatremia.
Sodium helps maintain fluid balance inside and outside cells. When sodium levels drop due to excessive water intake, fluids move from the outside to the inside of the cells causing them to swell. When it happens in brain cells, it can be dangerous and even life-threatening.
Conclusion: Water intoxication results from excessive water consumption. Excess water dilutes sodium in the blood and causes fluids to move inside cells, causing them to swell.
The dangers of excessive water consumption
When a person consumes an excessive amount of water and their brain cells begin to swell, the pressure inside their skull increases. This causes the first symptoms of water intoxication, which are as follows:
Severe cases of water intoxication can produce more serious symptoms, such as:
– weakness or muscle cramps
– increased blood pressure
– double vision
– inability to identify sensory information
– difficulty in breathing
A buildup of fluid in the brain is called cerebral edema. This can affect the brainstem and cause central nervous system dysfunction.
In severe cases, water intoxication can cause seizures, brain damage, coma and even death.
Drinking too much water can increase the pressure inside the skull. It can cause various symptoms and, in severe cases, become fatal.
What can cause water intoxication?
Water intoxication is rare, and it is very difficult to accidentally consume too much water. However, it can happen, there are many medical reports of deaths due to excessive water consumption. Water intoxication most commonly affects people participating in sporting events or endurance training, or people with various mental disorders.
Water intoxication is particularly common among endurance athletes. It can occur if a person drinks a lot of water without properly accounting for electrolyte losses. This is why hyponatremia often occurs during major sporting events.
As the authors of one study report, out of 488 participants in the 2002 Boston Marathon, 13% had symptoms of hyponatremia, and 0.06% had critical hyponatremia, with a sodium level below 120 mmol/l. Cases of water intoxication during these events have resulted in death. One such case involved a runner who collapsed after a marathon. As he had not been properly rehydrated, his sodium level fell below 130 mmol/l. The runner then developed water on the brain, known as hydrocephalus, and a herniation in his brainstem, which caused his death.
Mental health problems
Compulsive water drinking, also called psychogenic polydipsia, can be a symptom of various mental disorders. It is more common in people with schizophrenia, but it can also occur in people with affective disorders, psychosis, and personality disorders. Water intoxication can be life-threatening, and it is more common in soldiers in training, endurance athletes, and people with schizophrenia.
How much water is too much?
Overhydration and water intoxication occur when a person drinks more water than their kidneys can eliminate through urine. The amount of water is not the only factor, the weather also plays a role. According to figures cited in a 2013 study, the kidneys can eliminate about 20 to 28 liters of water per day, but they cannot eliminate more than 0.8 to 1.0 liters per hour. To avoid hyponatremia, it is important not to overwhelm the kidneys by drinking more water than they can eliminate.
The study authors say symptoms of hyponatremia can develop if a person drinks 3 to 4 liters of water over a short period of time, although they don’t give an exact estimate of when.
Conclusion: The kidneys can eliminate 20 to 28 liters of water per day, but they cannot excrete more than 0.8 to 1.0 liters per hour. Drinking more than that can be dangerous.
How much water do you need?
The right amount varies depending on factors such as body weight, level of physical activity, climate and breastfeeding. Some people still follow the 8×8 rule, which recommends drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. However, this rule is not based on research. Relying on thirst may not be for everyone. Athletes, the elderly, and pregnant women, for example, may need to drink more water each day. To estimate the right amount, it can be helpful to consider calories. If a person needs 2,000 calories per day, they should also consume 2,000 milliliters of water per day.
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