U.S. Water News Online
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sometime in the middle of the night, Carol
Tufts began to feel very strange. Dizzy, confused, disoriented.
By midmorning, she had collapsed into a chair, unable to walk,
unaware of what day it was. She was, in fact, dying.
The reason? She drank too much water.
Too much water? In the Southern Arizona desert? Where the
never-ending mantra drummed into our heads tells us to drink water
constantly to ward off the perils of our extreme, dry heat?
Well, Tufts -- always vigilant about her health -- followed that
advice for years, drinking lots of water daily, to stay hydrated and
healthy. And it almost killed her.
"This was a tremendous surprise to me. It's a fascinating
phenomenon," said Tufts, 80, a longtime Tucsonan and mother of the
late Randy Tufts, co-discoverer of Kartchner Caverns.
"I just think people really need to know there is such a thing as
drinking too much water -- even here -- and that it can be very
dangerous. I think there were warning signs this was happening to me,
but I had no idea what they meant."
Her warning is timely, coming on the heels of a major medical
study of endurance athletes that found drinking too much water during
heavy, prolonged exercise may be an even greater threat than drinking
In fact, that phenomenon has unexpectedly developed into one of
the most common health threats to Grand Canyon hikers, where nearly a
fifth were ending up as "water intoxication" emergencies until signs
went up all over the natural wonder warning of the danger.
This year, the once-unrecognized problem made medical headlines
after a study showed more than 10 percent of runners in the 2002
Boston Marathon finished the race with below-normal sodium levels, a
condition called hyponatremia.
The reason? They drank too much water during the hours they were
running, so much that they flushed sodium from their bodies,
dangerously upsetting their electrolyte balance.
When that happens, water enters the body's cells, which then
swell. If swollen brain cells start pressing against the skull, the
result is brain damage, paralysis, coma and sometimes death.
"We observed that hyponatremia occurs in a substantial fraction of
marathon runners and can be severe," the authors of the study,
published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April, concluded.
"(It) has emerged as an important cause of race-related death and
life-threatening illness among marathon runners."
Hyponatremia did in fact kill one runner that year -- a 28-year
old woman who was struggling badly the last six miles. Suffering
nausea, fatigue and muscle weakness -- symptoms similar to
dehydration -- she assumed that was the problem, chugged 16 more
ounces of fluids, then collapsed and died.
Her blood sodium levels had plunged to 113 millimoles per liter of
blood. Hyponatremia begins to occur at sodium levels below 135, and
becomes life-threatening at about 120.
When Carol Tufts got to Tucson Medical Center the day she
collapsed recently, her sodium level had plunged to 122.
"She was zoned, completely out of it. She was on her way down,"
said Tufts' daughter, Judy Rodin, who found her mother that morning
during a routine stop and called 911.
Obviously, at 80, Carol Tufts was no marathon runner or Grand
Canyon hiker. But she faithfully drank about 10 glasses of water a
day, practicing what she thought was a good habit. That morning, when
she felt so bad, she downed four glasses of water quickly, thinking
hydration would help what felt like an irregular heartbeat. Tufts was
also on medication for hypertension and osteoporosis, and also
suffered mild hypothyroidism -- a condition that can exacerbate
"We see this frequently, especially in elderly people. The cause
usually is all the water they're drinking, combined with the
medications they may be taking," said Dr. Ramakrishnan Subbureddiar,
a geriatric specialist who treated Tufts during her rehabilitation.
Now restricted to six cups of fluids a day, Tufts has recovered,
and is more clearheaded than she has been in months, both she and her
"I'm drying out, so to speak," Tufts laughed.
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