Death by Overhydration: How Water Intoxication Can End Your Life

Overhydration or water intoxication is defined as a potentially fatal disruption of brain functions as the result of balance of electrolytes outside safe limits because of the intake of excessive water. Even if overhydration does not result in death, the condition can have catastrophic and even debilitating consequences.

How Overhydration Can Be Deadly

Common Causes of Overhydration

Overhydration is rare. The most common causes of overhydration or water intoxication are:

  • Drinking contests

  • Long exercise sessions and overconsumption of water

  • Drug use, particularly MDMA of ecstasy

There are certain health conditions and ailments that can also result in overhydration. These include:

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Liver disease

  • Kidney issues

  • Inappropriate antidiuretic hormone syndrome

  • Uncontrolled diabetes

  • Schizophrenia

In addition, there are prescription medications that can cause overhydration:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories

  • Diuretics

  • Antipsychotics


The Pathology of Overhydration

As mentioned previously, overhydration or water intoxication can be fatal. The potential for fatal consequences is because of the impact overhydration has on brain cells.

When overhydration commences, fluid outside of the various cells in the body, including brain cells, have excessively low levels of what are known as solutes. Solutes include sodium and other types of electrolytes. The levels of solutes inside cells is significantly higher.

The imbalance results in the movement of fluid from outside cells into them. This movement occurs to balance the solute levels. The net effect is that the cells abnormally swell.

The swelling of cells in the brain increases intracranial pressure. If this condition persists for more than a short period of time it can result in the development of an array of physical responses. Indeed, as the swelling of brain cells persists or worsens, brain damage, coma, and death can occur.

Symptoms of Water Intoxication or Overhydration

There are a number of symptoms associated with overhydration. There is a specific set of symptoms associated with early water intoxication and another set as the condition worsens. Finally, there are symptoms associated with final stage of overhydration when a person is at risk of dying from the condition. In some cases, a person afflicted with overhydration experiences an unattended death.

The initial symptoms of water intoxication or overhydration include:

  • Headache

  • Confusion

  • Irritability

  • Drowsiness

  • Personality changes

  • Behavioral changes

As the condition worsens, symptoms of overhydration include:

  • General body pain

  • Cramping

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Thirst

  • Vomiting

  • Dulled perception

  • Misinterpretation of sensory information

As the brain cells continue to swell, blood flow is interrupted which, which results in cerebral edema. In addition, swollen brain cells can result in pressure placed on the brain stem. This can cause dysfunction of the central nervous system.

The final set of consequences associated with the late stage of overhydration are:

  • Seizures

  • Brain damage

  • Coma

  • Death


Treatment of Water Intoxication

As mentioned previously, overhydration is a rare condition. Oftentimes, it is the result of intentional overconsumption of water, use of illicit drugs (particularly ecstasy), negative side effects of medications, and certain health problems. When the early symptoms of water intoxication are detected, immediate steps should be taken to reverse the condition.

If a person appears to suffer from mild water intoxication, restricting the intake of fluids typically resolves the problem. The medically monitored use of diuretics can resolve of case of overhydration that is a bit more significant. If overhydration is more severe, medications known as vasopressin receptor antagonists are utilized. In very simple terms, these drugs interfere with the manner in which cells transfer fluids in and out.

Prevention of Over Hydration

Because of the common causes of water hydration, preventing the condition includes avoiding specific intentional conduct that represent the most common causes of the condition. Specifically, a person needs to avoid challenges involving the consumption of inordinate amounts of water. (This type of activity commonly is associated with hazing rituals.) Not ingesting ecstasy represents another strategy to avoid overhydration.

Prevention also involves making certain a physician appropriately monitors the side effects of certain medications listed previously in this article. In addition, a patient taking these medications must be diligent in monitoring for any potentially negative side effects, including symptoms that might be indicative of overhydration.

If a person perceives he or she is suffering from water intoxication, or if a person believes someone else demonstrates these symptoms, medical attention should be sought immediately. Early intervention is the surest way of limiting the negative consequences of overhydration.

The Death of Andy Warhol and Overhydration

Five years after his death, the family of iconic artist Andy Warhol settled a lawsuit against the hospital and healthcare providers that treated him following gallbladder surgery. Warhol’s family contended that Warhol died from overhydration caused by those who treated him following his surgery. The contended he received a fatal amount of fluids during post-surgery treatment. The red flag that caused the family to act was that Warhol weighed 128 lbs. when admitted to the hospital but weighed 150 lbs. at the time of his autopsy.

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