Water intoxication

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Not to be confused with Hydrocephalus.
Water intoxication
H2O 2D labelled.svg
Classification and external resources
Specialty toxicology, critical care medicine
ICD-10 E87.7
ICD-9-CM 276.69
DiseasesDB 29222
MeSH D014869

Water intoxication, also known as water poisoning or hyperhydration, is a potentially fatal disturbance in brain functions that results when the normal balance of electrolytes in the body is pushed outside safe limits by overhydration.

Under normal circumstances, accidentally consuming too much water is exceptionally rare. Nearly all deaths related to water intoxication in normal individuals have resulted either from water-drinking contests, in which individuals attempt to consume large amounts of water, or from long bouts of exercise during which excessive amounts of fluid were consumed.[1] In addition, water cure, a method of torture in which the victim is forced to consume excessive amounts of water, can cause water intoxication.

Water, just like any other substance, can be considered a poison when over-consumed in a specific period of time. Water intoxication mostly occurs when water is being consumed in a high quantity without adequate electrolyte intake.[2]

Excess of body water may also be a result of a medical condition or improper treatment; see "hyponatremia" for some examples. Water is considered as one of the least toxic chemical compounds, with an LD50 of over 90 ml/kg in rats.[3]

Risk factors[edit]

Low body mass (infants)[edit]

It can be very easy for children under one year old to absorb too much water, especially if the child is under nine months old. Because of their small body mass, it is easy for them to take in a large amount of water relative to body mass and total body sodium stores.[4]

Endurance sports[edit]

Marathon runners are susceptible to water intoxication if they drink too much while running. This is caused when sodium levels drop below 135 mmol/L when athletes consume large amounts of fluid. This has been noted to be the result of the encouragement of excessive fluid replacement by various guidelines. This has largely been identified in marathon runners as a dilutional hyponatremia.[5] A study conducted on participants of the 2002 Boston marathon found that thirteen percent finished the race with hyponatremia. The study concluded that the strongest predictor of hyponatremia was weight gain while racing (over-hydration), and hyponatremia was just as likely to occur in runners who chose sports drinks as those who chose water.[5] Medical personnel at marathon events are trained to suspect water intoxication immediately when runners collapse or show signs of confusion.

Overexertion and heat stress[edit]

Any activity or situation that promotes heavy sweating can lead to water intoxication when water is consumed to replace lost fluids. Persons working in extreme heat and/or humidity for long periods must take care to drink and eat in ways that help to maintain electrolyte balance. People using drugs such as MDMA (often referred to colloquially as "Ecstasy") may overexert themselves, perspire heavily, feel increased thirst, and then drink large amounts of water to rehydrate, leading to electrolyte imbalance and water intoxication – this is compounded by MDMA use increasing the levels of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), decreasing the amount of water lost through urination.[6] Even people who are resting quietly in extreme heat or humidity may run the risk of water intoxication if they drink large amounts of water over short periods for rehydration.

Psychiatric conditions[edit]

Psychogenic polydipsia is the psychiatric condition in which patients feel compelled to drink large quantities of water, thus putting them at risk of water intoxication. This condition can be especially dangerous if the patient also exhibits other psychiatric indications (as is often the case), as the care-takers might misinterpret the hyponatremic symptoms.


When an unconscious person is being fed intravenously (for example, total parenteral nutrition) or via a nasogastric tube, the fluids given must be carefully balanced in composition to match fluids and electrolytes lost. These fluids are typically hypertonic, and so water is often co-administered. If the electrolytes are not monitored (even in an ambulatory patient), either hypernatremia or hyponatremia may result.[7]

Some neurological/psychiatric medications (Oxcarbazepine, among others) have been found to cause hyponatremia in some patients.[8] Patients with diabetes insipidus are particularly vulnerable due to rapid fluid processing.[9]


At the onset of this condition, fluid outside the cells has an excessively low amount of solutes, such as sodium (hyponatremia) and other electrolytes, in comparison to fluid inside the cells, causing the fluid to move into the cells to balance its concentration. This causes the cells to swell. In the brain, this swelling increases intracranial pressure (ICP), which leads to the first observable symptoms of water intoxication: headache, personality changes, changes in behavior, confusion, irritability, and drowsiness. These are sometimes followed by difficulty breathing during exertion, muscle weakness & pain, twitching, or cramping, nausea, vomiting, thirst, and a dulled ability to perceive and interpret sensory information. As the condition persists, papillary and vital signs may result including bradycardia and widened pulse pressure. The cells in the brain may swell to the point where blood flow is interrupted resulting in cerebral edema. Swollen brain cells may also apply pressure to the brain stem causing central nervous system dysfunction. Both cerebral edema and interference with the central nervous system are dangerous and could result in seizures, brain damage, coma or death.[10]


Water intoxication can be prevented if a person's intake of water does not grossly exceed their losses.[11] Healthy kidneys are able to excrete approximately 800 millilitre to 1 litre of fluid water (0.21 - 0.26 gallons) per hour.[11] However, stress (from prolonged physical exertion), as well as disease states, can greatly reduce this amount.[11]


Mild intoxication may remain asymptomatic and require only fluid restriction. In more severe cases, treatment consists of:

Notable cases[edit]

  • 1991, Andy Warhol: Five years after his death, Warhol's family publicly accused the hospital where he had his gallbladder removed of causing his death by water intoxication administered post-operatively. A claimed autopsy weight of 150 lbs, with his weight being 128 lbs when admitted, was cited as evidence that too much fluid has been given.[12]
  • October 24, 1995: Anna Wood, a 15-year-old Australian schoolgirl died from the effects of water intoxication secondary to use of MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy).
  • November 16, 1995: Leah Betts, an English schoolgirl, died as the result of drinking too much water, though in the media her death was initially attributed to taking an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party.[13]
  • 2003: British actor Anthony Andrews survived a case of water intoxication. He was performing as Henry Higgins in a revival of the musical My Fair Lady at the time, and consumed up to eight litres of water a day. He was unconscious and in intensive care for three days.[14][15]
  • January 12, 2007: Jennifer Strange died after taking part in a competition to win a Wii held by radio station KDND.[16]
  • February 2016: Leanne Germain died after excessive water drinking following the recreational use of MDMA.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Noakes TD, Speedy DB (July 2006). "Case proven: exercise associated hyponatraemia is due to overdrinking. So why did it take 20 years before the original evidence was accepted?". British Journal of Sports Medicine. 40 (7): 567–72. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2005.020354. PMC 2564296free to read. PMID 16799109. 
  2. ^ http://learn.caim.yale.edu/chemsafe/references/dose.html[full citation needed]
  3. ^ [1] — see to Section 11: Toxicological Information for the LD50 verification
  4. ^ "Water Intoxication in Infants". Retrieved 31 August 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Almond CS, Shin AY, Fortescue EB, et al. (April 2005). "Hyponatremia among runners in the Boston Marathon". The New England Journal of Medicine. 352 (15): 1550–6. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa043901. PMID 15829535. 
  6. ^ Timbrell, John (2005). The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes. OUP Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-280495-2. 
  7. ^ Schwaderer AL, Schwartz GJ (April 2005). "Treating hypernatremic dehydration". Pediatrics in Review. 26 (4): 148–50. doi:10.1542/pir.26-4-148. PMID 15805238. 
  8. ^ "Oxcarbazepine". Retrieved 31 August 2015. 
  9. ^ What Is Diabetes Insipidus?
  10. ^ Moreau, David (ed.). Fluids and electrolytes made incredibly easy (4th ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. [page needed]
  11. ^ a b c Coco Ballantyne. "Strange but True: Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill". Retrieved 31 August 2015. 
  12. ^ "Care Faulted In the Death Of Warhol". NYT. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  13. ^ "Hyponatremia ("Water Intoxication")". The DEA.org. Retrieved May 10, 2007. 
  14. ^ Grice, Elizabeth (August 21, 2003). "My battle with the bottle". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  15. ^ Valentine Low; Evening Standard (3 July 2003). "Actor tells of water overdose". Evening Standard. Retrieved 31 August 2015. 
  16. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6261509.stm
  17. ^ Taylor, Jillian (20 October 2016). "Mother warns 'party drug' users after daughter dies from drinking too much water". CBC News. Retrieved 20 October 2016. 

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