What Happens if We Drink Too Much Water?

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Mature man holding a glass of water.
Mature man holding a glass of water. (Image: Digital Vision/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

When it comes to drinks, in most cases water should be your first choice. But it is possible to drink too much. Water intoxication is a dangerous condition that causes electrolyte imbalance and may be difficult to diagnose. Consult your doctor to discuss your daily water needs for good health.

Daily Water Needs

How much you need to drink each day depends on your health, gender, weight, height, the amount of exercise you get, the medications you take and what you eat. You can figure out your basic daily water needs using the formula: 1 quart of water for every 50 pounds of body weight, says Clemson Cooperative Extension. So if you weigh 120 pounds, you need 2.5 quarts of water a day.

About Water Intoxication

Water intoxication is when you drink more water than your body needs or can handle, which leads to low blood levels of sodium, or hyponatremia. Drinking too much water without salt, or sodium, overdilutes the sodium in your blood, which causes a shift in the osmotic pressure of your cells and allows the excess water to enter the cells, killing them.

Early symptoms of water intoxication include confusion, disorientation, nausea, vomiting and changes in mental state, according to a 2003 article published in Journal of Clinical Pathology. When left unchecked, severe water intoxication and hyponatremia may lead to seizures, coma and even death.

How Much Is Too Much

According to the authors of "Essentials of Nutrition and Dietetics in Nursing," if your kidneys are in good health, they can filter 50 ounces of water an hour. If you're following a low-sodium diet, the authors go on to say, drinking 60 ounces of water in an hour can lead to death. A low-sodium diet means you're consuming 2,000 milligrams of sodium or less a day, according to the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.

If you eat a regular diet, you shouldn't drink more than 100 ounces of water in an hour, they warn, which means no more than 12.5 cups.

Who's at Risk

Marathon runners drink a lot of water during a race to replenish lost fluids. But they are also losing sodium in their sweat, which increases their risk of hyponatremia. Including electrolyte replacement drinks with your water may help prevent hyponatramia. Children less than a year old are also at risk of water intoxication and should get all their fluids from breast milk or infant formula, says the Children's Hospital of St. Louis. People with a psychological condition called psychogenic polydipsia, or compulsive water drinking, also face the dangers of drinking too much water.

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