Get 25% OFF Preschool Puzzles and Activity Books for Bright Minds!

Make Every Playtime a Learning Adventure with Our Educational Toys!

Drink to Your Health, Not Your Harm: Understanding the Dangers of Water Intoxication

by Yuyu. Published on .

While rare, water intoxication is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body's sodium levels become dangerously diluted from excessive water consumption. Even though staying properly hydrated is vital for health, drinking too much water in a short period can disrupt electrolyte balance and lead to water intoxication.

This condition, also known as water poisoning or dilutional hyponatremia, causes sodium levels in the blood to drop below the normal range. Low sodium can in turn cause cells to swell and provoke potentially fatal complications.

Though uncommon, anyone who drinks an extreme amount of water is at risk of developing water intoxication. Endurance athletes, psychiatric patients, and participants in water-drinking contests are among those most susceptible. Given the health dangers involved, it's important to understand what causes water intoxication, how to recognize the symptoms, and ways to avoid it.

What is Water Intoxication?

Water intoxication, also known as hyponatremia, is a condition that occurs when sodium levels in the body become diluted from excessive water intake. This causes an electrolyte imbalance as the sodium concentration in the blood is lowered.

Sodium is an electrolyte that helps regulate nerve and muscle function, blood pressure, and fluid levels in the body. When sodium levels get too low, water intoxication can set in. This happens because the kidneys can only excrete so much water at a time. Drinking too much water flushes out sodium faster than the kidneys can get rid of the excess water.

The excess water outside the cells causes them to swell, resulting in potentially dangerous fluid shifts. Even though it seems counterintuitive, drinking too much water can be very dangerous. The key is to maintain a healthy balance of water and electrolyte intake. Consuming too much water without replenishing lost electrolytes is what leads to the potentially life-threatening condition of water intoxication.

Causes of Water Intoxication

Water intoxication is often caused by excessive water intake that dilutes the body's sodium levels. Some common scenarios that can lead to dangerously high water consumption include:

  • Endurance Sports and Exercise - During prolonged and intense exercise like marathons or triathlons, some athletes drink water excessively in an attempt to prevent dehydration. However, over-hydrating can also throw off the body's sodium balance and lead to intoxication. This is especially risky for endurance athletes who sweat a lot during long events.

  • Water Drinking Contests - Water drinking contests are promotions where participants compete to drink the most water in a short period of time. These types of contests can easily result in water intoxication due to the extreme volumes of water consumed. In 2007, a woman died of water intoxication after competing in a radio station's content to see how much water she could drink without going to the bathroom.

  • Psychiatric Conditions - Certain psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia or psychosis can cause excessive water drinking. This is sometimes referred to as "psychogenic polydipsia". The compulsive water drinking behavior can lead patients to unintentionally consume dangerous amounts.

  • General Excessive Intake - Even outside of the scenarios above, some people simply drink too much water on a regular basis without realizing the implications. Drinking over a gallon per hour consistently can throw off electrolyte balances and sodium levels in the body over time if not supplemented properly.

Mild Symptoms

Early symptoms of water intoxication are often mild and nonspecific. They include:

  • Nausea and vomiting - Excess water dilutes the electrolytes in the body needed for proper nerve and muscle function. This disruption often manifests first as nausea and vomiting.

  • Headache - Headaches are another common early symptom, resulting from the swelling and pressure caused by excess water in brain cells. The headache is often described as throbbing.

  • Fatigue - Fatigue results as the low sodium levels start impairing normal cellular processes. People may feel tired, lethargic, weak, or generally washed out.

  • Muscle cramps and spasms - With low sodium levels, muscles can involuntarily contract and spasm. This causes painful cramps, especially in the legs and feet. The muscles may visibly twitch as well.

These initial symptoms serve as warning signs that sodium levels are dropping too low due to overhydration. Prompt action is required to prevent more severe and dangerous complications.

Severe Symptoms

In more advanced cases of water intoxication, severely low sodium levels can lead to much more dangerous symptoms. As the brain starts to swell due to fluid shifts, the first signs are usually confusion, disorientation, and irritability. The patient may seem delirious and not make sense when talking.

Doctor looking at brain scans on monitor
Photo: Medical News Today

If sodium levels drop even further, seizures can occur as a result of the pressure on the brain. In the most extreme cases, the brain swelling can lead to a coma and become life-threatening very quickly. Without rapid treatment, permanent brain damage or even death can occur once seizures or a coma set in. The longer the brain goes without proper sodium levels and fluid balance, the higher the risk of lasting effects or fatality.

Prompt treatment can mean the difference between life and death in cases of severely low sodium due to water intoxication.

It's critical to seek emergency medical care immediately if any signs of seizures, severe confusion, or coma occur after excessive water intake. At that stage, intravenous electrolyte solutions and other medical interventions are necessary to stabilize sodium levels before permanent damage takes place.

Treatment for Water Intoxication

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of water intoxication, it's crucial to seek prompt medical treatment. Here are some steps to take:

  • Stop drinking water immediately - Preventing further water intake is the first priority. Do not consume any more plain water until a doctor can evaluate you.

  • Seek medical care - Go to an emergency room or urgent care clinic right away. Water intoxication can worsen quickly, so rapid treatment is vital.

  • IV fluids and electrolytes - At the hospital, doctors will likely administer intravenous fluids containing sodium and other electrolytes you need. This helps restore normal sodium levels.

  • Hospital monitoring - Severe cases may require admission for close monitoring and treatment. Brain swelling is a serious risk. Medical teams will track sodium levels, vital signs, neurological symptoms, and hydration status.

Following the doctor's treatment plan is crucial. Never try to self-treat water intoxication by drinking electrolyte beverages on your own. With prompt medical care, most cases can fully recover. But delaying treatment raises the risk of life-threatening complications.

Prevention Tips

The best way to prevent water intoxication is to listen to your body's natural thirst signals and not force yourself to drink excessive amounts of water. Here are some tips:

  • Listen to your thirst cues - Drink when you feel thirsty, but don't force yourself to drink beyond thirst. Your body is excellent at regulating hydration levels when you listen to it. Ignoring thirst and drinking excessively is what leads to water intoxication.

  • Moderate your water intake - Unless you are doing intense physical activity in hot weather for over an hour, you likely don't need more than 2-3 liters of water per day. Drink water steadily through the day rather than chugging large amounts at once.

  • Balance water with electrolytes - To maintain proper sodium levels, make sure to consume electrolytes along with water. Sports drinks, coconut water, some juices and broths contain helpful electrolytes. Fruits and vegetables also provide electrolytes.

  • Avoid water drinking contests - Competitive water drinking is extremely dangerous and has resulted in deaths due to water intoxication. Never engage in excessive water consumption for competition.

  • Seek medical advice if concerned - If you take medications or have a condition that makes you urinate frequently, talk to your doctor about safe hydration practices to avoid over-hydrating.

Risk Factors for Developing Water Intoxication

Certain individuals and scenarios can increase the risk of developing water intoxication. Some key risk factors include:

Endurance Athletes

Prolonged exercise leads to fluid loss through sweating, so athletes tend to consume large amounts of water to stay hydrated. During endurance events like marathons or triathlons, some athletes may drink too much water without properly replenishing electrolytes lost through sweat. This can result in dangerously low sodium levels.

Psychiatric Disorders

Some psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia may cause excessive water drinking. The compulsive water intake is driven by false beliefs rather than normal thirst mechanisms. This puts those with psychiatric disorders at higher risk for water intoxication if water consumption becomes extreme.

Using MDMA

The illicit party drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, is associated with increased water intake. The drug itself along with the hot, crowded conditions where it's often taken can drive dangerous over-hydration. MDMA also interferes with anti-diuretic hormone, impairing the body's ability to excrete excess water.


Diagnosing water intoxication involves a medical history and blood tests. Doctors will ask about recent water consumption, physical activity, medications, and medical conditions to determine if excessive water intake could be the cause of symptoms.

The key diagnostic test is checking blood sodium levels. Normal sodium levels range from 135-145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). In dilutional hyponatremia caused by excessive water, sodium levels typically drop below 130 mEq/L. The lower the sodium concentration, the more severe the intoxication.

Doctors may also check urine specific gravity, urine osmolality, and urine sodium levels. These can provide additional insights into the body's hydration and sodium balance. Imaging tests like CT scans might be used to check for brain swelling in serious cases.

An unexplained drop in blood sodium, together with a history of excessive water consumption, are the main factors in diagnosing water intoxication. Catching it early and correcting sodium levels is crucial to prevent complications.


Water intoxication is a rare but potentially life-threatening condition caused by excessive water consumption. While staying properly hydrated is crucial for health, it's important not to overdo water intake. Drinking too much water dilutes the sodium in your blood to dangerously low levels, resulting in a condition called hyponatremia.

The symptoms of water intoxication can range from mild nausea and headache to severe complications like seizures, coma, and even death in extreme cases. That's why it's critical to be aware of this condition and listen to your body's signals of thirst and hydration. If you experience any concerning symptoms after drinking large amounts of water, seek medical attention right away.

With some common sense precautions, water intoxication can easily be avoided. Drink water when you're thirsty, but don't force yourself to guzzle water beyond your body's needs. Be especially cautious during endurance activities where excessive hydration is sometimes encouraged. Opt for sports drinks that replenish sodium and other electrolytes lost through sweat. Moderation and balance are key when it comes to water consumption.

While water is undeniably important, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Understanding the dangers of water intoxication allows you to keep yourself safely hydrated.

Recent Posts