Water intoxication, which can lead to hyponatremia, is a serious medical condition which results when someone drinks too much water too quickly. This is a common but unfortunate result of dares and fraternity initiations, and it can kill if it is not quickly identified and treated. It can also happen to athletes who drink too much after a match or to infants who are given too much water or heavily diluted formula. Hyponatremia occurs when the sodium levels in the body are heavily diluted, resulting in an overall loss of electrolyte balance.
Essentially, water intoxication drowns the cells of the body in fresh water. If a large amount of fluid is consumed over a short period of time, the cells will begin to swell because the kidneys cannot process the water quickly enough. The water starts to dilute the electrolyte levels in the body, and if enough water is consumed, the cells could actually burst. A low level of electrolytes can result in an irregular heartbeat, brain malfunction, and ultimately seizures and death. The condition is easily treatable in early stages by injecting electrolytes into the body and limiting water consumption until the body has begun to process the excess.
Athletes avoid water intoxication by drinking water with electrolytes added so that the balance of the body is maintained. Parents try to avoid putting their infants at risk by being aware of how much water they are consuming. Other individuals at risk include people who are becoming dehydrated by vomiting or diarrhea, who also lose large amounts of electrolytes, causing the effect of water intoxication although the body is not flooded with water. In this instance, fluids consumed by the patient are balanced with electrolytes to restore the cellular balance.
Water intoxication is also called water poisoning, and it is an apt name because it acts on the body almost like a toxin. Under normal circumstances, an individual will not drink enough water to result in water intoxication, but in a situation where judgment might be impaired by heat stroke, drug use, or psychological duress or distress, a large amount of water may be consumed too quickly. When combined with situations like drug usage and heat, it can be difficult to identify water intoxication as the primary cause of illness, making treatment difficult. Remaining aware of your water consumption and taking steps to keep your electrolytes balanced will help to prevent this rare condition.