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The Science Behind Fatal Water Intoxication

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 6/29/2010

Many people think fatal water intoxication is a myth. However, it is a true medical condition. So, read on to learn about it.

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    Fatal water intoxication is often thought to be a myth, but it does in fact exist. Water is good for the body and it is necessary for survival, but too much water can cause death through causing an electrolyte imbalance.

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    What is Water Intoxication?

    To put it simply, the body has too much water in it when there is enough excess water to flood the cells in the body and the body's organs. Having too much water in the body will literally case the sodium in the body to flush out of it when the person urinates. When there is not enough sodium in the blood, referred to as hyponatremia, an electrolyte imbalance occurs. This imbalance of electrolytes results in nerve cell function becoming compromised which can lead to a variety of symptoms and complications, including some that are life-threatening.

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    How Does Water Intoxication Occur?

    Fatal water intoxication Fatal water intoxication occurs when a person drinks more water than the body can use and process. Most patients who succumb to this condition do so due to trying to stay hydrated or when competing to see if they can drink more water than others. Some sufferers share the belief that drinking more water will prevent them from ever becoming dehydrated. They also believed that when they urinated frequently it meant they were adequately hydrated. However, excessive urination, when not a symptom of an underlying disease, indicates that the person is, in fact, consuming too much water. The excess water is working like a diuretic and when the person is excessively urinating, the water is flushing the electrolytes out of the person's body.

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    Symptoms and Body Changes

    The symptoms of fatal water intoxication can be very serious and can impact a person's ability to take care of themselves. Adults can experience:

    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Lack of Coordination
    • Headaches
    • Disorientation
    • Combativeness
    • Dizziness

    The symptoms that infants can experience include:

    • Irritability
    • Swelling of the face
    • Drowsiness
    • Seizures
    • Low body temperate

    This condition can eventually result in coma and death when left untreated. In many cases, these symptoms associated with this condition are often believed to be caused by dehydration or alcohol, or just simply overlooked. Once symptoms are properly diagnosed as water intoxication, patients are often treated with diuretics to help increase urination. Vasopressin receptor antagonists can also be used to help increase serum sodium concentrations and raise electrolyte-free water excretion.

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    Risk Factors for Water Intoxication

    Certain people are at a higher risk for experiencing this condition and they include:

    • Babies
    • Dieters that stave off hunger pangs by drinking a lot of water
    • Those who have heat exhaustion who are trying to replace the lost fluids too rapidly
    • Those whose excessive thirst occurs due to a mental disorder, also referred to as psychogenic polydipsia
    • Extreme athletes who do replace lost water, but not lost electrolytes
    • Certain medical conditions that can cause increased thirst, such as diabetes
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    Brant, J. (2003). Drink This: The Eight Rules of Fluid Replacement and How They'll Energize Your Running. Retrieved on June 23, 2010 from Runner's World:,7120,s6-242-302--4814-0,00.html

    St. Louis Children's Hospital. (2010). Water Intoxication in Infants. Retrieved on June 23, 2010 from St. Louis Children's Hospital:

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    Image Credits

    Pouring Water into Glass: ArtMast –