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The Lesser Known Malady of Water Intoxication

By Brian J. Lane

In talking with a Grand Canyon park ranger at Phantom Ranch, I was told that hyponatremia is the most common problem from which canyon hikers suffer. This is another heat-related illness, along the lines of heat exhaustion, that can happen when you drink a lot of water without eating anything. I have to admit that I’m one of those people who tend to eat less when I’m on the trail. Water intoxication can cause an imbalance of electrolytes so severe that you could end up suffering a seizure, a coma, or even death. Although this condition is really the opposite of dehydration, the symptoms are nearly identical: disorientation, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.

To prevent water intoxication, don’t drink just water alone; mix in some electrolyte-containing sports drinks. You’ll also need to eat more than your normal intake of food (especially high-sodium foods and salty snacks) while hiking in the arid southwest during the warmer seasons to help in avoiding hyponatremia.

It can also be important to monitor the food and water intake of others. If you, or someone in your group has symptoms similar to dehydration, and you know they have eaten very little food, assume that they may be suffering from water intoxication. Have them rest and eat salty foods. If symptoms progress, protect the victim during possible seizures and monitor breathing; even if you recognize the symptoms and treat this condition right away, the victim may need to be evacuated.

All in all, this is one of the most common, yet most easily avoided medical situations that could possibly befall hikers while traveling on foot in our warm Arizona climate.

Hike Smart & Have Fun!
Brian

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