Monday, July 25, 2011

H2Oh No

It’s heat wave season. If you are like me, it is the season of sweating profusely while doing any sort of outdoor activity. In response to the increased perspiration I follow the advice given since the first day of T-ball: drink plenty of water to rehydrate.  The other day I noticed that I drank the entire Brita pitcher during the course of some afternoon chores and began wondering if it was a bit excessive, after all everyone’s herd the stories of people dying from drinking too much water. So I did a little research and discovered you can in the rarest of cases die from too much water, it’s called water intoxication.

Basically water intoxication occurs when someone drinks so much water that electrolytes, namely sodium, in the body become so diluted that the body fails on a cellular level. Sodium is used by the body to regulate blood pressure and muscle function. Cells maintain a specific level of sodium concentration by moving water (which contains sodium) in and out of the cell. If someone has taken on excessive amounts of water in a short amount of time without replacing any electrolytes, cells will attempt to increase sodium levels by taking in large amounts of the diluted water. Since the sodium levels in the water is so low, cells will continue taking in water to reach their desired  sodium level and as a result cells swell in size.

Many cells can accommodate swelling and easily expand, but brain cells confined by the skull cannot. This leads to water intoxication whose symptoms are similar to alcohol intoxication including nausea, altered mental state, headaches, muscle weakness and vomiting. In rare cases brain swelling can lead to brain cells actually bursting. Extreme and untreated cases of water intoxication can result in coma and death.

Don’t be worried, death by water intoxication is exceedingly rare in daily life and reserved for the most extreme cases. One would have to go out of their way to drink a hugely uncomfortable amount of water without taking in any sodium (salt NaCl).  In distance sports water intoxication it is a known risk and distance athletes replace electrolytes by drinking sports drinks.

For some extreme examples in water intoxication we turn to the fraternity system which has provided us with so many good examples of the dregs of human behavior over the years. A freshman pledge of Psi Epsilon Chi at SUNY Plattsburgh, was forced to drink gallons of water through a funnel, after a 10 day pledge binge which caused his brain to swell and lead to his death.  A junior at Chico State was forced to drink excessive amounts of water while performing calisthenics in a frigid basement as part of initiation rites. He collapsed and died of heart failure due to water intoxication.

Water intoxication is easily treated if discovered with IV fluids and even more easily avoided by consuming electrolytes. So drink as much as you need to stay hydrated this summer, water intoxication shouldn’t be an issue unless you are a triathlete or a frat boy.

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