FlipFact of the Day: One of the first things we learn growing up is that water’s good for us, and that we can’t live without it. (Mahatma Gandhi famously starved himself for three weeks, but still had to take sips of water from time to time.) Another thing conventional wisdom tells us is that excess of everything is bad—and water consumption is no exception. In fact, drinking too much of this life-giving fluid can have fatal results.
Water intoxication (also referred to as hyperhydration, water toxemia, or simply water poisoning) happens when you take in more water than your kidneys can handle. This causes the sodium concentration in your bloodstream to drop drastically (hyponatremia). To make up for this imbalance, the fluids outside your cells—all of them, including your brain cells—move inside, making your cells swell. This can result in head pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and seizures. The patient may also lose consciousness, fall into a coma, or even die if not treated immediately.
Fortunately, it’s unlikely for you to drink yourself to death on an ordinary day. After all, some people already find it challenging to drink a set amount of water daily. Additionally, most deaths by water intoxication were due to water-drinking contests or overdrinking after intense physical activity (such as marathons or military training). Meanwhile, a few cases resulted from either drug abuse, mental health disorders, or water torture.
So, what counts as “too much” water? The answer varies, depending on your overall physical health. Consider this, though: A healthy adult’s kidneys are capable of flushing out about a liter of water per hour, and anywhere from 20 to 28 L of water per day. (Older adults and children generally have kidneys that can’t handle as much water per hour.) So as long as you don’t drink more water than your kidneys can flush out, you should be fine. And of course, drinking too little water is just as bad for you (so don’t use this as an excuse not to drink up).
As a rule of thumb, drink when you’re thirsty; when you’re not, don’t overdo it. Extremely clear urine may also be a sign of excessive water consumption, so watch out for that, too. As summer rolls in and the days get hotter, remember to drink just the right amount of water.
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Cover photo: sci-supply.com
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.