Ashley Summers died unexpectedly after drinking too much water too quickly.
Her family was shocked to learn that she died of something called water intoxication.
Drinking excessive amounts of water can mess with sodium levels in the body, causing cells to swell.
The family of a woman who died after drinking too much water too quickly on a boating trip are raising awareness of what’s known as water intoxication.
“It was a big shock to us all,” her brother Devon Miller told WLFI News. “I was just like, this is a thing?”
Ashley Summers, 36, a daycare worker based in Monticello, Indiana, who had two young daughters, died unexpectedly on July 6 after boating on a lake with her husband and kids on the Independence Day weekend.
Summers developed a headache on July 4 and felt like she couldn’t get enough water, Miller said. He said she drank four bottles of water during a 20-minute boat ride from a sand bar to the dock, before passing out at her home later that day and never waking up.
“It pinched off her blood vessels like a kink in a hose and just stopped the blood flow to the brain,” Miller said.
Water intoxication is where the body’s electrolyte balance is thrown off
Water intoxication, also known as water toxicity, is uncommon but can happen if a person drinks too much water too fast, throwing off the body’s electrolyte balance and causing the body’s sodium levels to drop rapidly.
Sodium helps to maintain blood pressure and is vital for the healthy functioning of nerves, muscles, and body tissues. But when the amount of sodium in fluids outside cells drops below normal because of excess water consumption, water moves into the cells to balance the levels, which causes the cells to swell. When brain cells swell it can be life-threatening.
Usually, people are most at risk for water toxicity when drinking water after a long workout, as the body loses both water and electrolytes when it sweats. People who run marathons or ultramarathons are particularly at risk for this reason.
However, water toxicity can also be the result of a psychiatric condition called psychogenic polydipsia, which is when someone drinks an excessive quantity of water as they feel very thirsty, despite their body not physiologically needing any water. It mostly affects people with schizophrenia.
Dr. Alok Harwani, an emergency physician at IU Health Arnett Hospital in Indiana told WLFI News early signs of water intoxication can include feeling very out of it, fatigue, headaches, and feeling generally unwell.
“If you’re really concerned that you or a family member is not acting right and you’re worried about water toxicity, don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1,” he said. Other symptoms can include restlessness, irritability, muscle spasms, seizures, and coma.
Once identified, water intoxication requires hospital treatment.
To avoid water intoxication when drinking a lot on a hot day or after exercise, Harwani recommended breaking up water intake with drinks like Gatorade or snacks like fruits, and vegetables to replenish electrolytes.
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