What Is Water Intoxication? Its Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

For our body cells, water is as important as solid food. Without water a person cannot survive for long time. However, drinking large amount of water ‘very quickly’ can have serious medical repercussions. It may lead to water intoxication and hyponatremia. Yes I know, there’s a question in your mind regarding why people and even medical persons say that one must drink ‘plenty of water’ or ‘drink plenty of fluids’.

Normally 70% of our body is comprised of water. It is also true that water keeps our body hydrated, especially in hot climate. Water helps to maintain all the systemic functions to work at their optimum level. But, drinking large volumes of plain water can cause over hydration.

Causes Of Water Intoxication

I must make it clear that water intoxication is not a common issue in normal healthy people as even when they drink water in excess, they may not drink in one go. Their body will respond the issue with vigorous diuresis. They may drink it over a period of time, say in whole day. The problem of water intoxication occurs in some situations such as in athletes, people who are doing strenuous activities or in infants.

Here water intoxication occurs because the dehydrated athlete drinks excess of water without necessary electrolytes mixed in it.

It can also occur in people who are ill for a variety of reasons and they have restricted ability to dilute the urine when large amount of water is consumed. These include patients suffering from acute and chronic renal disease, congestive cardiac failure, adrenocortical insufficiency, cirrhosis of liver.

Occasionally tumors of lungs and ovaries secrete a substance which has anti-diuretic properties, and this may cause water intoxication. Water intoxication can also occur in post operative subject as a result of inability to dilute the urine. The reason is release of vasopressin a stress hormone, as a result of stress of operation.

Symptoms Of Water Intoxication

Water intoxication causes the cells of the body to drown in it. If large volumes of water is consumed in short interval, the body cells will begin to swell as water accumulates in them, the kidney is not able to bear the excess of water load and is not able to dilute the urine, ultimately a stage comes when the cells burst. Large volumes of water intake also lead to electorate imbalance. It causes hyponatremia. Primarily the symptoms are those of disordered brain function. These include;

  • Irregularity in heart beat.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Mental confusion.
  • Change in behavior.
  • Difficulty in breathing while exertion.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Twitching and cramps in muscles.

In severe water intoxication;

  • Convulsions.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

Water Intoxication Treatment

The diagnosis of water intoxication may depend on the history of large volume of water from the patient himself or from other people. Demonstration of sodium level in the serum below130 mEq/l is also useful indication.

Treatment includes restriction of water and fluid intake. In mild cases restriction of fluid is only needed to reverse the effect of water intoxication. It will give time for the kidney to process excess of water from the body.

In more severe cases the patient may need to be hospitalized in order to balance his electrolyte. In case of hyponatremia, the doctor may administer sodium chloride solution intravenously. The amount to be given is strictly monitored.

Diuretics may be needed in some patient to stimulate the kidney to process water at a faster rate.

Sometimes if diuretic is not enough to manage the situation, the physician may also prescribe medicine to counteract the vasopressin effect.

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