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Jun 29, 2015 05:28 PM EDT

Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill You


Drinking too much water can be life-threatening and should only be consumed when an individual is thirsty, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Loyola University Health System revealed that a condition called exercise-associated hyponatremia, which results from drinking too much water or sports drinks, has killed at least 14 athletes, including  marathon runners and football players.

But new guidelines from an international expert panel shows that there's an easy way to prevent hyponatremia: Simply put, drink only when you're thirsty.

"Using the innate thirst mechanism to guide fluid consumption is a strategy that should limit drinking in excess and developing hyponatremia while providing sufficient fluid to prevent excessive dehydration," according to the guidelines, published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

Exercise-associated hyponatremia occurs when drinking too much fluid  overwhelms the ability of the kidneys  to excrete the excess water load. Sodium in the body becomes diluted. This leads to swelling in cells, which can be life-threatening.

Symptoms of this condition include lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, puffiness and gaining weight during an athletic event. Severe symptoms include vomiting, headache, altered mental status (confusion, agitation, delirium, etc.), seizure and coma.

Researchers said that Athletes often are mistakenly advised to "push fluids" or drink more than their thirst dictates by, for example, drinking until their urine is clear or drinking to a prescribed schedule. But excessive fluid intake does not prevent fatigue, muscle cramps or heat stroke.

"Muscle cramps and heatstroke are not related to dehydration," James Winger, sports medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center, said in a statement. "You get heat stroke because you're producing too much heat."

The guidelines say Exercise-associated hyponatremia can be treated by administering a concentrated saline solution that is 3 percent sodium -- about three times higher than the concentration in normal saline solution.

The findings are detailed in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine

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