Ever consider water as a means of sickening your characters in a novel? Yes? Well then, this post is for you. :)
Have you ever heard someone say, "Oxygen is poisonous. After all, 100% of humans who breathe it will eventually die."
Well, the same could be said about water. Except water can kill a heckuva a lot faster if the situation is just right (or wrong, rather). We're talking about water intoxication.
That's correct. Water can intoxicate you, and I do mean in a toxic way. It's also known as water poisoning, or the medical term, dilutional hyponatremia ("low salt in the blood").
There are several situations in which one can become seriously sick or even die from water intoxication.
- Endurance athletes: Think of marathoners who collapse at the end of a race and need hospitalization. When you're sweating a lot of salt water, your body *thinks* it needs to retain fluid because you're sweating and exercising, AND you're drinking large quantities of pure water, it's a perfect set up for this condition.
- Heat Stress: It's a hot day. You're sweating buckets and drinking huge amounts of water to compensate, and then you get a headache...and confused...and pass out. Yep.
- MDMA use: Also known as "ecstasy", this street drug not only causes body temperatures to rise (hyperthermia), but users drink a lot of water because of it. On top of it, MDMA can cause the body to secrete a hormone called ADH (antidiuretic hormone) which slows down the ability to urinate out the excess fluid.
- Really Stupid Challenges and Games: I'm a huge non-fan of all those internet challenges and games. Like the Cinnamon Challenge, or the choking-somebody-until-you-pass-out challenge. Well, there's also a water drinking challenge, and guess what? People die. This unfortunate woman died after a radio contest was held to see if people could drink large amounts of water and not pee. This 12 year-old died playing water poker where she had to drink a glass of water if she lost a hand.
- Psychiatric Illness: All doctors learned about this in medical school. It's called psychogenic polydipsia, in which a sufferer feels compelled to drink water constantly.
- Accidental/Unintentional: Babies can become water intoxicated because it takes relatively little water compared to their body size to make them ill. Adults can drink too much water for the wrong reasons (for example, they get nervous before a medical test, or are trying to dilute their urine before a drug test, or are trying to suppress their appetite and drink too much water too quickly).
- Torture: Enough said.
So what is the mechanism of water intoxication? Basically, a healthy pair of kidneys can clear about a liter of water per hour. If you overdue this and drink too much and too fast and retain more water than your body needs and can get rid of, your blood sodium will start to become dilute.
When this happens, your body cells (which contain a healthy, well-regulated amount of sodium) start to take in water to try to even out the sodium concentration discrepancy between what's inside the cell, and what's outside. So cells start to swell. Like your brain cells. Which is really, really bad.
Symptoms include headache, confusion, irritability, muscle cramping and twitching. When it's worse, nausea and vomiting, coma, seizures, brain damage, and death.
How much can kill you? Drinking 3-4 liters of water too quickly could make you hyponatremic. The lady in the water drinking contest drank about six liters of water in a three hour period before she died (that's just over one and a half gallons of water).
For all of you out there who are now pushing away that glass of water in abject fear and horror, don't! Remember--drink to satisfy your thirst, use common sense to stay hydrated, stay cool, don't do stupid internet challenges, and you won't end up on one of my Medical Mondays posts. :)
Also, don't use Ecstasy. Bye now!