Drinking plenty of water is essential to living a healthy lifestyle, but drinking too much could be deadly. After a recent hospitalization of a woman in the U.K., healthcare professionals have issued a warning about a condition known as water intoxication.
Suspecting she had a urinary tract infection, the 59-year-old woman was advised by her doctor to increase her water intake, hoping it would “flush out her system.” Being somewhat overzealous, she began drinking over half a pint of water every half hour. She was also prescribed a regimen of antibiotics and painkillers.
Not long after, she became gravely ill and taken to King’s College hospital. Upon examination, emergency room doctors discovered the patient had dangerously low salt content in her blood, a condition often called water intoxication. The ailment can be fatal if not recognized and treated immediately.
According to the case report published in the British Medical Journal, the woman’s health continued to decline even after being admitted to the hospital.
“During her visit to the emergency department, she became progressively shaky and muddled. She vomited several times, was tremulous and exhibited significant speech difficulties.”
Blood tests confirmed her sodium level was 123 mmol/L, a level deemed by health professionals as a medical emergency with a high chance of death. For treatment, the patients fluid intake was significantly reduced over a 24-hour period. The day after her ER visit, the patient’s salt level had returned to normal, and she was released from the hospital.
Also known as hyponatremia, water intoxication causes vomiting, nausea, headaches, confusion, seizures, and sometimes death. Water intoxication generally occurs in people participating in endurance sports or taking certain medications and kills nearly 30 percent of patients diagnosed with the condition.
Generally, doctors and well-meaning friends advise someone feeling sick to “drink plenty of fluids.” Yet, there is still an outstanding debate within the healthcare industry if the advice really makes a difference, and no one really knows what amount of water to recommend.
“The old adage to ‘drink plenty of water’ should be approached with caution if you are not vomiting, or experiencing diarrhea, or excessive sweating,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told CBS News. “Your thirst is often the best guide to gauge when you need to drink more water if you have no history of kidney disease. There is a complex feedback loop from the kidney that stimulates special receptors in the brain that trigger the sensation of thirst.”
While water intoxication can be deadly, most people do not need to worry about “over-hydrating.” According to Glatter, drinking a higher amount of water throughout the day should not be a concern for a healthy person with “normal kidney function.”
The report authors note that the amount of water a person needs varies, but they advise not to significantly change the amount one drinks even when ill.
“If you are someone who doesn’t drink much water and then suddenly fill your body with masses that’s going to have a very big effect,” said Dr. Maryann Noronha, a co-author of the report, as reported by The Guardian.
According to the American Chemistry Society, consuming about six liters of water will kill a 165-pound person. Hyponatremia happens when an excessive amount of water overwhelms the kidneys, preventing them from efficiently flushing the water out of the body. The surplus water eventually enters the cells, causing them to swell. A person can die from water intoxication if cells in the brain begin to swell.
Also important in water level regulation is salt, which acts as an electrolyte in the body. Electrolytes help the body moderate and control water levels in and around the cells. When someone drinks too much water, salt levels drop dangerously low, leaving the body with less defense against water intoxication.
Fortunately, the British case of water intoxication was identified and treated quickly. However, hyponatremia is so rare, it is often missed in initial examinations of patients suffering from the condition and often leads to unnecessary deaths.
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