Hidden Dangers: Too Much Water

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You may have already heard about dihydrogen monoxide. There are several websites devoted to its dangers, and many unsuspecting people lose their lives due to dihydrogen monoxide every year. The truth is, however, dihydrogen monoxide is simply one chemical name for water.  That’s right — good old H20.

The term dihydrogen monoxide was made popular many years ago as part of an elaborate hoax aimed at convincing people the substance was truly dangerous and should be regulated or banned entirely. Of course, water can be dangerous to people. Perhaps the most common example is drowning. But water can also be deadly if consumed in excess, as in water intoxication. The exact amount needed to produce intoxication varies by the individual, but it usually involves many liters consumed in a very short period.

Human body cells consist of 65 – 90 percent water. So how can something as essential to the human body as water possibly be harmful or even deadly? As it turns out, anything consumed in excess can become a poison to the body.

Dilution

Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells that depend on electrolytes (e.g. sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate) to function properly. These Electrolytes are ions which have a positive or negative charge, and our bodies use these charges to maintain proper function in cells. Consuming too much water over a short period disturbs the delicate balance of these electrolytes.

Hyponatremia

Hyponatremia occurs when sodium ions are diluted due to excess water. Symptoms include confusion, vomiting, personality changes, irritability, headache and difficulty breathing. Severe hyponatremia can cause coma and death if untreated. When discovered early, hyponatremia can usually be reversed with intravenous electrolytes.

Who is at risk?

  • Long distance runners
  • College students subjected to hazing
  • Anyone entering a water drinking contest
  • Dieters who use water to control hunger
  • People who work in the hot sun and consume too much water without replacing electrolytes

Prevention

Water intoxication is preventable if care is taken to ingest electrolytes. Drinking sports drinks, such as Gatorade, is an effective way to restore electrolytes in the body. Also, your water intake should be comparable to water lost through metabolism, perspiration, urination, etc.

Notable Deaths

  • In 1987, artist Andy Warhol died from cardiac arrhythmia. However, his family blamed the death on water intoxication from intravenous fluids received after surgery.
  • In 2002, a competitor in the Boston Marathon died of water intoxication. There have been dozens of similar cases related to long distance running since.
  • In 2003, a college freshman was forced to drink significant amounts of water as part of a hazing ritual. He later died from water intoxication.
  • In 2007, a contestant died from water intoxication while trying to win a prize for a radio show.

When it comes to drinking water, it’s best to listen to your body. Seek medical advice if you experience any signs of hyponatremia.

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