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PUBLISHED: 3:19 PM on Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Realities, danger in water intoxication
Until the recent death of a young woman after competing in a radio station's water-drinking contest, many people didn't know they could drink too much water.

The 28-year-old mother of three entered the January contest in which contestants were challenged to drink as much water as possible without going to the bathroom. The mother was attempting to win the prize - a new Nintendo Wii video game system - for her children. After complaining of bad headaches, the woman drove home, where she later died of water intoxication.

Who is at risk for water intoxication?

• Marathoners, athletes or anyone in long-duration exertion with sweating.

• Infants who are given too much water or diluted formula.

• Older people, especially those with any kidney, heart or liver dysfunction.

• People who drink more than two gallons of filtered or bottled water a day.

Symptoms

• Dizziness.

• Confusion.

• Incoordination.

• Headache.

• Muscle cramps.

• Seizures.

This condition can happen easier than you think - to anyone.

Ask Mary Parks. The 78-year-old woman began drinking lots of water in early 2006 because she heard it was good for her.

"I would drink many full glasses of RO (reverse osmosis) water day and night," she said. "I was drinking RO water because it tasted better."

But within a few weeks, she began having dizzy spells, suffering gradual memory loss and feeling confused, she said.

"One day I was so dizzy I fell on the couch," Parks said. "I didn't even know which way was up."

Her husband, Bruce, rushed her to the hospital.

"I thought I was going to lose her," he said.

After tests and investigation, Parks' physician diagnosed this usually active grandmother of five with water intoxication, also called overhydration.

"The condition occurs when the body takes on too much water," said Dr. Rajat Bhatt, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center.

"It dilutes the body's fluid until the levels of sodium and essential minerals drop too low," he said.

Symptoms can include dizziness, muscle cramps, confusion, incoordination, headaches and even seizures, Bhatt said.

Once she started drinking regular tap water and other liquids, Parks recovered completely.

"I had to learn to drink Lubbock water sometimes," Parks said, since tap water contains the sodium and minerals her body had lacked.

"For healthy adults, I recommend no more than 2 gallons of water per day," Bhatt said. "Drinking as little as 1.8 liters of water (about 7 glasses) in a single sitting may prove fatal for a person on a low-sodium diet - 12 glasses a day for a person on a normal diet. If a person has liver, kidney or heart problems, they should drink even less."

When asked about the RO water Parks had been drinking, Bhatt commented that such water, like bottled water, filters out contaminants, but it also filters out minerals the body needs.

"For drinking limited amounts of water, bottled or RO water is fine," Bhatt said. "But if a person wants or needs to drink two gallons in a day, they should drink sports drinks or water that is filtered only for contaminants, not for important minerals."

Others who may be at risk? Athletes involved in long-duration exertion that includes lots of sweating, which was the impetus behind the creation of now-popular sports drinks that contain minerals and electrolytes. And infants who are given too much water or water-diluted formula, according to St. Louis Children's Hospital.


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