Water intoxication primary prevention

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Primary Prevention

Water intoxication can be prevented if a person's intake of water and electrolytes closely matches his or her losses. The body's regulatory mechanisms provide a very generous margin of safety if the two are imbalanced, but some extreme activities (such as heavy, prolonged physical exertion), as well as disease states, can overwhelm or impair these mechanisms. Avoid situations that provoke extreme or prolonged perspiration. Drinking fluids that are specially balanced to replace lost electrolytes can also help to prevent intoxication. Eating regularly can provide needed electrolytes if only normal water is available for rehydration.

Sports drinks are popular among athletes because they provide the necessary electrolytes to support extended exercise. They help keep the body balanced and carrying the right amount of fluids. However, not all drinks advertised as sports drinks are suitable for this purpose, and professional advice should be sought for potentially risky situations such as those described above.

Note that a person's innate sense of thirst is more sensitive to overall dehydration than to changes in electrolytes. Thus, it is possible to develop water intoxication while trying to satisfy thirst, if one drinks a great deal of water over a short period. A dangerous drop in electrolytes, such as the hyponatremia that leads to water intoxication, will not have any effect on thirst if one is sufficiently dehydrated.

For people suffering from dehydration due to the heavy perspiration associated with heavy exertion or heat stress, drinking water to rehydrate is much more important than avoiding water intoxication, since the former is extremely common and the latter is rare. One should never avoid drinking water under such conditions; instead, other steps should be taken to ensure that electrolytes are replaced as well, as noted above.