Water Poisoning: The Source of Life Can Also Kill

Water intoxication tips
Written by Dennis Owens

Water poisoning is a real danger, and also proof that anything and everything can harm you in large quantities. We all know of dehydration and the dangers of drinking far too little to no water and the effects that this can have on your body. However one of the less discussed issues is what happens on the other side of the spectrum, when we drink too much water too fast.

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However, when this does happen, something known as water intoxication occurs, and it has some dire and severe effects on the human body, both long and short term.

See also: Best Hiking Water Bottle: Stay Hydrated on the Trail

There are a lot of ways in which this problem can be encountered, as well as many ways in which it manifests itself over the human body. It is possible to treat this problem and even guard against it to begin with, however in order to learn how to do that, we will first have to understand what it is in the first place.

What Is Water Intoxication?

Believe it or not, it is a form of poisoning, however not in the more popular form.

One of the more commonly known pieces of information is the fact that the human body is made primarily of water. Indeed everything in our body has water at its base, and without we would simply die. The very cells that make up our bodies depend on a proper and stable water intake in order to both hydrate and replenish their cell structure, but also feed them with the electrolytes that they need.

On average, a normal person would need to consume a little over 2 liters of water or around 70 ounces of water per day. This amount not only guarantees that the cells are properly fed and regenerated, but also the fact that the chemicals in our bodies will be balanced and the various systems that our body relies on will be properly maintained.

Excessive water drinking

However, every now and again, this amount can be exceeded, and the more excess of water that is being drunk the more likely it is that the person in question will be poisoned by the water that he or she is drinking.

When this happens, the body starts getting more and more stressed, from inside out, at a cellular level. First of all, this is not like your average intoxication or poisoning, where cells start dying and systems start shutting down; things in fact work differently when water is involved.

  • The level of electrolytes and sodium composites in cells starts rising well above the normal and healthy thresholds. That being said, the cells themselves get overwhelmed by this sudden spike and start losing their integrity.
  • The second thing that happens, as a result of this sudden spike, the cells in question begin to enlarge. However because of the fact that different cells have different properties, they enlarge at different rates. Usually the soft organs and glands are the first ones to be affected by this aspect, and once this starts happening, these organs start behaving in different ways, all of them outside the norm.

This affects a lot of the bodily functions, going all the way to modifying the personality and behavior of the person in question. This is altering their chemical balances, to organ failure and ultimately death.


This does not happen without a reason, out of the blue. There are certain things that drive a person to consume a lot more water than usual.

First, there are conscious things, such as water drinking contests or water torture. But these are quite rare and we know when we stepped over the limit. However, there are things we tend to do without noticing, instinctive things that cause us to over-drink. People that subject themselves to intense physical activity and people that often find themselves in stressful situations tend to drink a lot more water than recommended.

Causes of water intoxication

Marathon runners in particular are the most susceptible to this kind of intoxication, simply because of the rigorous training and the strain that they put themselves through. This causes them to drink a lot more water and it becomes incredibly easy for them to over-drink and become intoxicated.

The reason for this being the fact that the body, which is constantly adapting and tweaking things on the go, is actually increasing the amount of water required in order to feel quenched.

That being said, the human kidneys can secrete between 0.8 – 1 liters (0.21-0.26 gallons) of fluid per hour. Extended physical stress and strain can lower this quantity significantly. This is the body’s way of preserving its liquids, however the sensation of thirst is still there, and often times it will cause the person in question to over-drink.

That being said, if the intake of water is larger and more intense than the urine production values, intoxication starts setting in.

How to Spot The Symptoms

It is important to understand here that the symptoms are largely difficult to spot until it is too late.

Water intoxication symptoms

Seeing the symptoms in others is incredibly difficult because they are not externally visible until it is too late. However it is easier to see them as they are happening to you.

  • First and foremost, you should start paying attention to how much water you are drinking daily. Look past any physical activity or strain that you might have.
  • After you’ve determined how much water you are drinking, factor in around 800 ml (0.21 gallons) as being the result of physical activity or strain. That being said, you should have a pretty accurate level of water consumption that you are at and this is the first indication that you might have problems in that department.

There are, however, symptoms that are slightly harder to detect, unless you really pay attention to yourself.

  • One of the first things that you will notice is the fact that you are feeling incredibly heavy and sluggish in your entire body.
  • After that, you will start feeling tired, especially after waking up from short naps. Your body will feel like it needs a lot more energy in order to exert itself properly and you will not be able to rest properly. This is usually the onset of intoxication. The cells, at this point, are flooded with both water and excess electrolytes, and it is happening all over the body, causing it to feel heavy and sluggish.
  • Next symptom that will set in is moodiness. You will be easily irritated and easily annoyed by even the smallest things. As time goes on without the problem being addressed, you will become increasingly moody and easily annoyed. This is because of the soft organs and glands becoming disproportionate and the irregular secretion of the chemical compounds that your mental balance relies upon.
  • By this time, the nervous system is starting to be affected by over-hydration, and things will start spiraling out of control. The next symptom is behavioral change.

Basically, your behavior starts changing often, sometimes even without any reason or provocation. Even the most mundane things and even the most meaningless of details are enough to make you go haywire and switch everything up, or down, depending on how your personality shifts at that certain point in time.

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This happens because the brain itself is now sustaining damage and stress as a result of over-hydrations and cells being flooded with water and excess sodium compounds.

  • At this point, the stress is minimal and the damage is unnoticeable and meaningless, however this is the point where things start becoming critical. The next symptom is severe nausea, followed by irregular bodily functions.
  • The feeling of nausea is overwhelming, often times to the point of vomiting, however without being able to do so. Different bodily functions kick in without notice and chaotically. This is because the effects of over-hydration are taking a real toll and putting a lot of stress on the brain cells themselves. The cells are starting to enlarge, sending mixed signals and throwing chemical balances into chaos.
  • Next symptom is a loss of senses and consciousness. By this point, it is becoming incredibly hard to see, feel, smell, hear or even balance yourself. You keep slipping in and out of consciousness, everything in your body s backfiring. This is because at this point, the brain itself is swollen and is swelling around the brain stem, causing irreparable damage. The organs in the body are starting to fail and are at the same time putting the person in question at the serious risk of death.
  • The next symptom is death. This is the point where vital organs fail permanently and the brain is swollen around the brain stem to the point where it fails altogether.

How to Treat It

There is some good news though. If caught early, this type of poisoning can be treated, and depending on which stage it is caught in, the treatment can be a bit more complicated and a bit more severe.

Before continuing it is worth noting that there is no actual long term medicinal treatment designed to purify your body and put it back on track. It will have to be done the hard way and you will need a lot of motivation and a lot of determination in order to see it through.

Before you get started though, make sure that you will not be training nor be subjected to any physical stress or strain during the process.

Restrict your water intake

First and foremost, what you will need to do is actively restrict your water intake to the recommended level. In fact it is often recommended that you go a bit below the recommended level in order to better regulate yourself. This means that you will not be drinking more than the recommended quantity of water, 2 liters or 0.5 gallons per day.

Make sure to monitor your intake of fruits and vegetables as well, as well as anything with juices or moisture of any kind because these will add up to the intake of water.

If you are used to drinking significantly more than the recommended amount of water per day, you will feel thirsty throughout the day, however this slight discomfort will pay off in the long run.

This is by far the easiest method, but it only works in very early stages.

For intermediary stages, where the early effects of over-hydration have settled in, you will have to start taking diuretics. Diuretics will cause you to urinate a lot more frequently, thus emptying your bladder a lot more often and allowing the kidneys to process a lot more water.

It is important to mention that you will be monitoring your daily water intake and you will be regulating it while taking diuretics. This will be slightly more uncomfortable but it will get the job done without having to resort to extreme measures while at the same time regulating your water levels.

For more advanced stages, you will be looking towards VRA. VRA (Vasopressin Receptor Antagonist) is a medicinal drug that more or less antagonizes certain receptors in your body. Some of these receptors are the receptors responsible for the renal system and the activity of the kidneys themselves.

Vasopressin Receptor Antagonist effect

So think of VRA as a way of cranking things up to 11 and boosting your urinary capabilities, while at the same time regulating your water levels and water intake.

Something very important to note here is the fact that it can be very easy to hurt yourself and cause severe damage to the renal system while on VRA, so make sure that you do not exceed the recommended dosage. You should always stay within the treatment parameters prescribed by your doctor and you don’t push yourself physically.

Another thing to mention here is the fact that even though you will still have to be actively regulating your water intake while on VRA, it is recommended to take a softer more gentle approach to it. Again, this is for the more advanced stages, before the loss of senses and before entering brain damage territory.

If you find yourself in the last stages of water intoxication and are finding it very hard to get your bearings and control your bodily functions, you will need to call an ambulance or have someone take you to the nearest hospital.

How to Prevent Intoxicating Yourself with Water

Prevention is often the best way of counteracting a problem. Simply make sure that the problem never takes place in the first place. The same goes with over-hydration.

First and foremost, in order to better protect yourself against it, you will need to remember that the risks are real and that it can actually be very easy to fall prey to it.

Prevent intoxicating yourself with water

That being said, you will have to monitor and restrict your water intake throughout the day. If you are indeed training intensely or are living a physically demanding lifestyle, you can drink 500ml or 17 ounces of water extra in order to compensate for the water and electrolyte loss. See our must-read article listing the top water enhancers to keep you nourished and hydrated.

Make sure that you urinate often and that you don’t try and hold it on or generally refrain from doing so.

One Health Issues to Take Seriously

Becoming intoxicated or downright poisoned as a result of over-hydration is a reality and an actual risk that happens far too often than we might think.

While the most common forms are minor ones at best, their very existence is enough to worry us, without even mentioning the risk of aggravating the problem.

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It is a good idea to keep a mental note of how much water we drink and how many fluids and juices we consume throughout the day. This will keep us in control and prevent us from getting in a nasty situation to begin with. However in the event of over-hydration actually happening to us, it is very important to stay calm and treat ourselves accordingly, regardless of the situation we might find ourselves in.

To find out how long you can stay alive without food and water, check our earlier piece that explain about this topic in detail.


Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.