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What is Hyponatremia?

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Updated December 11, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition:

Dilutional hyponatremia, also known as water intoxication, is a potentially life-threatening condition which occurs when a person consumes too much water without an adequate intake of electrolytes. The chemical process that causes hyponatremia is described by About.com's chemistry guide in the article Can You Drink Too Much Water?

To put it simply, water in the body needs to contain enough salts and other ions, called electrolytes, to keep the body's cells functioning properly. If you take in too much water without enough electrolytes, the water can move into the cells of the body, causing them to swell. The brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of hyponatremia.

Who Is At Risk for Hyponatremia?

Most people are not at high risk for hyonatremia, because the body is good at keeping fluid and electrolytes balanced. But some people are at higher risk: they might think they need more water than they do because they're in a compulsive state of mind as a result of drug use, or because they're encouraged to drink a lot of water without enough electrolytes. Following are some groups who have been identified as "at higher risk" than others:

  • Users of stimulant drugs, especially when combined with dancing for hours on end.
  • People who've consumed drugs, including alcohol, and are trying to remove the drug from their bodies by drinking a lot of water.
  • People who are addicted to exercise, who work out for many hours a day and attempt to rehydrate themselves with water only.
  • People engaging in pro-ana behaviors as an attempt to lose excessive weight; drinking large amounts of water can be used in this way.
  • Newborn babies whose mothers avoid breastfeeding and feed them dilute formula and water, which can include the babies of drug using mothers.
  • Endurance athletes
  • People with certain psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder

How to Prevent Hyponatremia

Stimulant Users sweat out water and electrolytes quickly, due to the stimulant effects of the drug. This process speeds up when they're dancing for hours on end, which is common at raves and dance parties where people use drugs such as meth, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), bath salts, and lower doses of MXE or ketamine to keep them going. It's important to drink water throughout the night, rather than all in one go — and also to consume enough salt to prevent water intoxication. This can be done by drinking rehydration fluid instead of water, eating salty foods when you drink water, or taking a small amount of salt with your water — about half a teaspoon per liter.

High doses of caffeine can also be used as a stimulant; energy drinks, for example, may contain large doses of caffeine and no electrolytes. In contrast, some sports drinks are designed for the proper hydration of athletes and contain the correct proportions of water and electrolytes, so they can be safer to consume for rehydration. Even some of these drinks may even contain high amounts of caffeine, however, so caution is advised.

People drinking alcohol can become dehydrated and attempt to hydrate themselves by drinking large amounts of water at the end of the night. But because the symptoms of water intoxication are similar to those of alcohol intoxication, the problem may be overlooked. The best way to avoid this is to alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and to include fruit juice and mixers, which contain salt.

People attempting to lose weight by exercising frequently should rehydrate themselves using dilute fruit juice or water containing electrolytes. As with stimulant users, "little and often" is better than a lot of fluid all at once. And because stimulant users, over-exercisers, and people engaging in pro-ana behaviors are prone to compulsive behaviors, take extra care not to drink water compulsively.

Parents of newborns should always follow the instructions for mixing formula exactly. Drug-using moms are wise to avoid breastfeeding, but remember: breast milk contains the right balance of electrolytes and water. Don't ever be tempted to water down formula as a way to save cash for drugs, because babies are especially vulnerable to hyponatremia.

If you think you or someone else may be suffering from water intoxication, call 911 or take them to an emergency room at once. Fast treatment could save his or her life.

Pronunciation: hi-pO-na-tray-mEE-a
Also Known As: water intoxication
Examples:
Leah Betts died of hyponatremia after drinking 7 liters of water in a 90-minute period while on ecstasy.
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