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Can we die from drinking too much water?

Published on October 21, 2014 at 14:41 / Updated on May 21, 2019 at 19:35

A young Californian woman passed away after having participated in a contest to win a new video game console. According to the coroner, she died from water intoxication. But how could that happen?

The story began on a silly note. A radio station in Sacramento, California, organized the contest “Hold Your Wee for a Wii”. The goal was to drink as much water as possible without going to the washroom. The participant who could hold it in the longest would win the new Nintendo Wii.

The contestants were first given one 8 oz (225 mL) bottle of water every fifteen minutes. After the fifth bottle, the organizers increased the amount of water contestants had to drink. Jennifer Strange was one of the contestants. She said she wanted to win the new game for her three children. Soon after the contest, she had to leave work because of an excruciating headache. She was found dead in her house the next day and probably died from having drunk too much water.

The kidneys’ function is to regulate water retention or excretion according to the body’s needs, notably to maintain a constant level of salt in the blood. When we drink too much water, the kidneys are unable to keep up. The blood then becomes dilute with lower salt concentrations. When the blood contains less salt than the cells do, the body naturally tries to find its equilibrium. It will transfer the dilute blood to the cells to re-establish balance. The brain is particularly fragile. As it is contained by the cranium, it cannot expand when it swells, it is stuck. Pressure increases in the brain, causing violent headaches and serious damage to vital regions that control our breathing for example. If these cells die, the person stops breathing and dies within minutes. This is what is thought to have happened to Mrs. Strange.

This tragic accident in no way means you should stop drinking water. It is actually more common for people to drink too little water. We constantly eliminate water throughout the day by sweating and urinating. It is therefore recommended we drink a litre and a half of water per day to compensate for these losses. When the weather is really hot or during physical activities, it is important to drink even more. However, if you find you need to urinate more often than every two hours or if your urine is clear, you are probably drinking too much liquid.

Dying under these circumstances is extremely rare. People who take the drug ecstasy are particularly at risk of experiencing this exact fate. This drug increases thirst and facilitates the release of anti-diuretic hormones, preventing the body from urinating. People on ecstasy tend to ingest large quantities of water without being able to eliminate it and some have actually died from this.

It just goes to show that even when it comes to water, moderation is a must!

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