Water Poisoning: Treatment & Prevention

Drinking water
Written by Russell McCarty

We need water to survive. You have probably heard that it’s important to drink plenty of water as it is essential for the human body to function well but have you ever wondered if it’s possible to drink too much water.

Water makes up about 66 percent of the human body, runs through the blood, and inhabits the cells. When it’s hot outside or when you are exercising, you drink plenty of water. This is how your body stays hydrated.

Drinking plenty of water helps your body balance body temperature, flush waste products out of the body, prevent constipation, and perform many other important functions.

Drinking extreme amounts of water is common among athletes who mistakenly over-hydrate during training or young people who are challenging themselves to water drinking contests. In rare cases, drinking a large amount of water in a short time can be dangerous.

It can cause the level of salt, or sodium, in your blood to drop too low and this condition is called hyponatremia. Severe cases of hyponatremia lead to water intoxication.

To understand how water poisoning happens and how much water is too much, you need to understand how your body regulates water.

What Is Water Poisoning?

Water poisoning, also known as hyponatremia or water intoxication, is a condition that occurs when the body’s essential sodium electrolyte is diluted by consuming large amounts of water in a short period of time.

When this happens, your body’s water levels rise, and your cells begin to swell and malfunction. This swelling can trigger many health problems, from minimal to life threatening. Sodium is an electrolyte that helps balance the amount of water that’s in and around your cells.

See also: Best Water Enhancers: What You Need to Know When Buying

When this happens in the brain the pressure can cause impaired breathing and headaches. It also triggers the heart to work overtime as well. For more useful information on water poisoning, check out our must-read piece on the topic.

Types of Water Poisoning

There are two types of water poisoning, which are also known as overhydration. These are:

  • Increased water intake. Increased water intake is a type of water poisoning that occurs when you drink more water than the kidneys can get rid of as excretion product such as urine.
  • Retaining water. This type of water poisoning occurs when the body is unable to get rid of excess water.
    This type can result in other medical conditions. It can also result in throwing off the balance between sodium and water in the body.

The Impact of Water Poisoning

The impact of water poisoning to humans health is disastrous. It leads to a lot of medical issues. It can lead to kidney disease, heart failure and syndrome of the inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone.

This condition makes the ability of the body to excrete water to be impaired. It also increases the risk of electrolyte imbalance in the body.

Causes of Water Poisoning

Water poisoning occurs when a person drinks an extreme amount of water and does not excrete the water through urination or sweating. It can also occur when both sodium and fluid are lost from the body.

Medical conditions that can sometimes be associated with water poisoning are adrenal insufficiency and cirrhosis of the liver. Below are some of the causes of water poisoning.

  • Low body mass: Kids under one-year-old can consume too much water easily due to the small size of their body. However, due to their low body mass excess water goes inside their body.
    It is impossible for them to consume a large amount of water when compared to their body mass index and their total body sodium deposits.
  • Endurance sports: Athletes are susceptible to water poisoning. Consumption of excess water causes a sudden decrease in sodium level causing hyponatremia. Endurance sports like a marathon where runners drink too much water while running cause levels of sodium to drop.
    This results from excessive fluid replacement. However, medical officials that are appointed in the racing ground are trained to identify water poisoning immediately when a runner collapses a marathon Athletes who drink more water than they sweat seem to be at greatest risk.
  • Heat and over excretion: Excess sweating may lead to water poisoning. Water is consumed in excess to replace the lost fluid. Some drugs may also cause heavy perspiration which leads to consumption of excess water.
    Activities that simulate heavy sweating can also lead to water poisoning when too much of water is taken to replace fluids. The person working under excessive heat or intense humidity must be careful when consuming water in order to maintain electrolyte balance.
    Someone relaxing in extreme heat may consume extreme water resulting in water poisoning.
  • Psychiatric polydipsia condition: This is a situation where patients feel so thirsty and obligated to drink a large amount of water leading to water poisoning.
    It is greatly damaging; the condition is more dangerous, especially if the patient show signs of other psychiatric conditions because caretakers might get the wrong impression about the symptoms of water poisoning.
  • Iatrogenic: When a person is unconscious, is being fed intravenously or through nasogastric tube, In this case, there is a risk of enormous drinking of fluids by the patient through the tube causing water poisoning, therefore care should be taken to give an adequate amount of fluid in order to balance the loss of fluid and electrolyte.
    If not given properly given, it may lead to hyponatremia or hypernatremia. Constantly patients should be examined so that excess water will not enter into the body.
  • Water drinking contests: During water contest, when a person drinks too much of water within a short period of time, the blood becomes waterlogged because the kidney can’t get rid of the water fast enough which is very harmful if proper care is not taken. There have been several cases of death reported during water drinking contest.
  • Changes in hormone: A change of hormone in your body can lead to a decrease in sodium level of the blood, therefore resulting in water poisoning.

Sometimes climate change can also be a contributing factor.

In situations where you are moving from a cooler to a much hotter region, there can be an increase in the way you sweat therefore leading to an electrolyte imbalance.

Symptoms of Water Poisoning

Water poisoning symptoms start immediately the salt concentration of blood water drops down.

You may recognize the symptoms in early stages; since the brain is the organ most vulnerable to the effects of excess consumption of water, a change in behavior is usually the first symptom of water poisoning. The person may become confused, inattentive or drowsy. The key symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Paralysis on one side of the body
  • Poor coordination
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Muscle cramps and twitching
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Seizures
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Unconsciousness

If you don’t get the right help, severe cases can quickly lead to coma or death, so it is very important to be aware of these symptoms.

What Are The Exams and Tests for Water Poisoning?

Before beginning treatment, the doctor will request for your medical history to determine whether symptoms are due to excess consumption of water or another condition. Water poisoning is characterized by excess water both within and around the body’s cells.

A physical examination including blood and urine tests will be performed. Below are some of the laboratory tests that can be used to detect person’s suffering from water poisoning.

  • Hematocrit Tests: This test is carried out as a part of a complete blood count. They measure the percentage of blood that is in the red blood cells
  • Blood Urea Nitrogen Tests: Ordered to evaluate kidney function, they measure the amount of urea nitrogen in the blood. This test can also be used in other medical conditions such as CHF, MI, diabetes, severe burns, and water poisoning.
  • Sodium Tests: This test is carried out when there is a suspected electrolyte imbalance, which may result in lethargy, confusion, weakness, muscle twitching, and a decreased urinary output. This test is used to measure the quantities of sodium in the blood.
  • Serum Osmolality Tests: This test is usually carried out to evaluate water poisoning which is as a result of excess fluid in the bloodstream or sodium lost in the excretion of this test can also be used to know the number of solutes present in the blood.
    Excess fluid in the bloodstream can be caused by drinking excessive amounts of water, water retention, decreased the ability of the kidneys to produce urine, and the existence of osmotically active agents.

Treatment of Water Poisoning

Treatment for water poisoning depends on the severity of the symptoms. If you experiencing swelling in the brain, seizures, and coma.

Go to a healthcare center as soon as possible the doctors there will inject you with concentrated salt water to balance the electrolyte, relieve swelling, and reverse problems. Further treatment may include:

  • Fluid restriction: The first step to treating water poisoning is to restrict fluid and salt intake. In serve cases, this is all the treatment required to reverse the effects of drinking excess water.
    It will give time for the kidney to process excess water from the body and recover on its own.
  • Administration of IV fluids: If your water poisoning effects are getting more serious, it is important that the body system electrolytes be put back into balance. The doctor might need to administer IV fluid medical treatment in order to restore the body.
    An IV increases the low levels of sodium in the blood. In order to avoid the risk of overcompensating and raising sodium levels too high, this must be done gradually.
  • Diuretics: This may be prescribed to stimulate the kidney to process water at a faster rate. This is usually done in combination with other treatment methods. This treatment is most effective when used for someone who has experienced some kind of physical stress that has triggered the kidneys to slow down function in order to conserve water.
  • Suppression of the vasopressin hormone: In serve cases, the doctor needs to administer medication that will prevent vasopressin effect sometimes if a diuretic is not enough to manage the situation.
    When a person went through some physical stress, his body can produce a hormone known as vasopressin. Vasopressin is also known as an antidiuretic hormone because it depresses kidney function. Vasopressin is present in the body of a person drinks an excessive amount of water.

How to Prevent Water Poisoning

The best way to prevent water poisoning is to make sure you don’t drink more than you sweat out. It is important to consult your doctor for special considerations if you have a history of any health problems such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, or kidney or you are taking any medication for a health condition. If you also have excessive thirst, contact your doctor.

Eat foods that provide additional sodium like chicken noodle soup, cheese, pretzels, a dill pickle, and tomato juice. Increase salt intake per day several days before you will start your extreme workout or competition.

It’s good to have sports drinks instead of plain water if you are participating in the high-intensity exercise.  Sports beverages that contain the electrolyte potassium and sodium are also recommended.

How Much Water Do You Need?

Drinking enough water is important for the body to function, but drinking an extreme amount can be risky as drinking too little. Water is an essential chemical of the body; this is the reason why it needs to remain within a healthy scope in order to balance the body.

Are you drinking too much water

The body excrete water every day through urinating, breathing, sweating, and having a bowel movement. In order to replace the body with enough water without overwhelming the cells, you should not drink more than 27 to 33 ounces (0.8–1.0 liters) of water per hour, on average.

Have you ever experienced water poisoning or intoxication? What did you do when you noticed that you had a problem or did someone else help you to recover?

Check out more tips on how to prevent overhydration to keep you safe.

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Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.