Water Intoxication: Can You Drink Too Much Water?

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Have you ever wondered what happens if you drink too much water? Our bodies certainly need water for survival, but too much water consumption can lead to serious health consequences.

It’s always possible to overdue too much of a good thing. In this article, we will discuss what water intoxication is, the causes of water intoxication, signs and symptoms, and recommendations for daily water intake to prevent water intoxication from occurring.

📌 Key Takeaways

  • Water intoxication is when you drink more water than your body and kidneys can get rid of.
  • Water toxicity can have severe consequences and potentially lead to death if not treated immediately.
  • Events of water intoxication tend to be rare, most people struggle with dehydration.

🤔 What is Water Intoxication?

When you drink more water than your kidneys can get rid of this is called fatal water intoxication or water toxicity or water poisoning. One of the roles of the kidneys is to filter our blood and produce urine.

Our kidneys can only handle so much. In fact they are able to remove about 0.8 to 1.0 L per hour. If you’re drinking too much water the kidneys will have difficulty keeping up.

This can lead to too much water in the blood which dilutes electrolyte concentrations resulting in electrolyte imbalances. One of the main electrolytes that would decrease below normal levels is sodium. When the blood sodium concentration drops below 135 mmol/L, this is called hyponatremia.

This is detrimental because sodium helps the body maintain fluid balance. When sodium levels drop because of the excessive water consumption, fluid will move outside to inside the body’s cells resulting in swelling.

Imagine a water balloon – it only has so much water capacity before it bursts. The same goes for our human cells. When this occurs to our brain cells it is very dangerous and life threatening.

Woman drinking water

🔎 What Happens if You Drink Too Much Water?

When the brain cells begin to swell from excessive intake of water this increases pressure on the skull. This extra fluid in the brain is known as edema which leads to central nervous system dysfunction.

If you’re wondering what happens when you drink too much water look out for the following signs and symptoms. In these severe cases, water intoxication can even cause seizures, brain damage, comas , and even death.

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headaches
  • difficulty breathing
  • confusion
  • muscle weakness or cramping
  • increased blood pressure
  • double vision
  • drowsiness

🩺 What Causes Water Intoxication?

There are certain activities or health conditions that may put you at a higher risk for water intoxication. For the most part, it includes people that participate in high intensity endurance sports or those with certain mental health conditions.

Endurance Sports

There are instances where improper hydration can lead to water intoxication in endurance athletes . This can occur when an athlete such as an ultra-runner may have higher water intake in addition to electrolyte loss through sweat. These two combinations put endurance athletes at a greater risk.

In one study, 13% of 488 participants in the Boston Marathon had hyponatremia symptoms, 0.6% had critically low sodium (levels less than 120 mmol/L).

You are at a higher risk for hyponatremia during high intensity endurance events and in hotter climates.

Woman drinking water after workout

Military Training

Between 2007 and 2022 the Military Health System and Defense Health Agency reported 1690 cases of exercise related hyponatremia among active service personnel.

Symptoms of hyponatremia can present itself as dehydration so accurate diagnosis and treatment is vital.

In a 2015 report, it was determined that too much water consumption during 40 kilometer marching exercise in hot weather resulted in a fatal outcome. The soldier at the time had consumed almost 13L of water during this exercise when his peers had consumed around 10 L.

Mental Health Conditions

Compulsive water drinking also known as psychogenic polydipsia is being reported more frequently in psychiatric populations.

The effects of excessive water drinking can lead to the side effects mentioned earlier in this article including hyponatremia, nausea, vomiting and in severe cases death.

While it is mostly commonly seen in chronic schizophrenia, other mental health disorders such as affective disorders, mental retardation, psychosis, personality disorders, and anxiety are also associated with psychogenic polydipsia.

However, no specific cause for compulsive water drinking has been identified.

Feeling sick after drinking water

Drug Interactions

There have been several cases where use of MDMA (also known as ecstasy) has resulted in hyponatremia. This is partly because after ingestion of ecstasy there is a misconception about water intake resulting in over consumption of water intake and water intoxication.

📖 How Do You Know If You’re Drinking Too Much Water?

Is is important to note that water toxicity is rare. Most people have difficulty not drinking enough water, however if you feel like you’re drinking too much water below are a few things to look out for.

Signs of Over Hydration

Urine color is a very practical way to determine how well hydrated you are, whether you’re dehydrated or drinking too much water. The goal is for your urine to be a pale yellow. However, if your urine is consistently clear, this may be a sign that you are drinking too much water.

Pay attention to how often you are going to the bathroom! If you’re going to the bathroom more than usual then this could be a sign you’re drinking too much fluid. Keep in mind you should urinate six to eight times per day.

Other signs and symptoms

Consuming too much water can have the same symptoms as dehydration. However, if you have been drinking an excess amount of water and experience the following symptoms seek medical treatment immediately.

Other signs and symptoms you’re consuming excess water include throbbing headaches all day, discoloration of your hands, face and lips, weakness, muscle cramping and fatigue.

📥 How Much Water Should You Drink?

So, how much water should you drink? Well, there are no “official” guidelines on how much water a person should drink each day according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, most people are able to stay properly hydrated if they consume 8 to 12 cups of water per day.

It is important to keep in mind that your water requirements will differ depending on your body weight, physical activity, climate, age, and more.

Make sure you listen to your body! One way to do this is by paying attention to the color of your urine and thirst. If for example your urine is too dark and you are thirsty, this is your body’s way of telling you that you’re dehydrated.

A glass of clear and drinkable tap water in a hotel room in San Francisco

📑 The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that water poisoning is rare. Most people have a more challenging time drinking enough water instead of too much. However, while it is rare some populations are more at risk including endurance athletes, active military members, psychiatric disorders and those that use MDMA.

It is important to be able to identify the warning signs of water intoxication in order to have proper treatment. If you have had too much water and experience any of the symptoms discussed in this article, seek medical attention immediately.

❔ Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Know If You Have Water Intoxication?

Water intoxication signs and symptoms can be similar to dehydration. However, some of the warning signs include confusion, nausea, vomiting, low sodium levels, weakness, increased blood pressure and more.

You may be at risk from water intoxication if you are an endurance athlete or active military member due to the intensity of activity level required. If you have had an excessive amount of water seek medical attention immediately for proper treatment and avoid serious health complications.

How Much Water is Over hydration?

There is not a certain number of water per day that would cause over hydration or life threatening water poisoning since the number would likely vary from person to person.

However, some resources suggest that you should not drink more than 1 L of water per hour for several hours at a time. Our kidneys are capable of eliminating up to 1L of fluid per hour via urine.

As you can imagine, you would have to be drinking a very large amount of water for water toxicity to occur.

Is 4 Liters of Water a Day Too Much?

If you were to drink 4 L of water in a short period of time, this could result in water toxicity. However, depending on your age, weight, activity level and climate 4 L of water per day would not be too much. In fact, the institute of medicine recommends about 3.7 L of water per day for Men.

  • Roxanne Trotter
    MS, RDN

    Registered Dietitian Roxy, fueled by her love for food and wellness, tackles misinformation head-on. Her Master's in Human Nutrition and diverse experience (weight management, hospitals) equip her to translate complex health topics, especially those related to water quality. Through her own practice (Nutremedies LLC) and writing for Water Filter Guru, Roxy empowers readers with accurate, evidence-based information, helping them make informed choices for a healthier life, one sip at a time.

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