Water intoxication can damage your lungs, brain, heart and other organs. The condition occurs when you drink too much water too quickly, placing stress on your kidneys. Your kidneys normally filter water and waste from your body. When you drink too much water, your kidneys cannot perform swiftly enough. Water builds up in your body, diluting the electrolytes in your blood. Electrolytes are minerals that perform important body functions. Water intoxication causes rapid electrolyte depletion.
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Water intoxication can occur when you drink more than 5 liters of water over a period of just a few hours, according to an article published in the May 2002 issue of "Military Medicine." Death from water intoxication is rare, but it does occur. Young children, the mentally ill, hospitalized patients and high-performance athletes are at greater risk of water intoxication than the general population.
Sodium is a primary electrolyte in your body. Rapid electrolyte loss can cause hyponatremia, or sodium depletion. Hyponatremia is an early symptom of water intoxication. When you don't have enough sodium in your body, drinking more water can cause fluid to build up in your lungs, brain and heart. In essence, you drown on dry land. Excess water moves to your cells, including your brain cells. Excess water in your brain causes cerebral edema, or brain swelling. Brain swelling ceases vital bodily functions, including breathing and muscle control.
Your first symptom of hyponatremia may be a headache, followed by nausea, confusion, loss of muscle control, exhaustion and seizures. Eventually, you may experience difficulty breathing. Without treatment, you can lapse into a coma, stop breathing and die. Seek medical treatment immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.
Physicians treat water intoxication by restoring electrolyte balance and addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Your doctor or nurse will monitor all of your fluid intake and output. Your sodium levels will be tested frequently and you may need to take medication, especially if you are hospitalized for the condition.