There was a time when college hazing antics involved getting a bad haircut, drinking too much alcohol, being painted in an embarrassing way, or being denigrated in a humorous fashion. Then in the early 2000s, someone came up with the idea that drinking too much water would be a great idea for a hazing experience. Water should be perfectly safe to use; it doesn’t involve alcohol, illegal substances or any criminal activity, or at least that’s how the thinking went. So, creating a challenge of drinking outrageous amounts of water should just cause some discomfort, but not much more, right? Wrong! Water overdose incidents have instead caused serious injuries, as well deaths.
Excessive Water and the Body
The human body is significantly made of water, but that doesn’t mean the system can handle tons and tons of intake without having problems. The problem with water overdosing goes down the cellular level. The body’s cells operate on a balance of salt and water. When the balance is correct, cells function the way they should, operating throughout the body and performing their functions properly. One of those functions is the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the brain and body, and transferring carbon dioxide out of the body. The cellular system is also responsible for removing wastes from the body.
When too much water is forced into the body, the cells become saturated with water. At the microscopic level, over-saturation literally causes cells to explode and die. One of the critical effects is on the brain. The brain is highly sensitive to foreign liquids in the bloodstream. This is why it reacts so quickly to alcohol and drugs. When over-consumption of water occurs, a condition known as a hyponatremia occurs, otherwise commonly known as a water intoxication. When this happens, the brain’s electrolyte level is completely thrown out of whack. Too far out of the limits and the water intoxication can cause brain damage and even death.
The brain will respond, and quickly. In many cases, the brain will shut down its higher level functions to preserve what are known as survival functions: breathing, heart pumping, circulation, etc. The victim will feel symptoms of this shutdown process in the form of dizziness, inability to think, slurring speech, loss of recognition and headaches. To outside observers, it will look like the person is drunk. In more serious conditions, the brains suffers damage to areas where blood stops circulating. As a result, the water damage can have serious effects on the higher cognition parts of the brain, resulting in permanent brain damage. Victims of water overdosing who survive often suffer from seizures or damage to areas were blood flow was cut off due to water pressure and swelling.
How Much Is Too Much?
The body doesn’t overdose from one bottle’s worth of water. The type of water overdose in college party hazing is an extreme type where people are drinking gallons of water at a time. The body does not have the ability to remove this water as quickly as it is being taken in, even through urination. As a result, serious treatments with medical help often involve injecting the patient with diuretics to increase outflow from the kidneys, as well as stomach pumping to remove water content in the stomach area if present. Both will drain a victim somewhat of content. Unfortunately, the rest has to be processed by the body over time.
According to this article on WebMD.com, sometimes even babies can have issues with water overdosing. Their bodies are so tiny that they can’t handle lots of water. That’s why doctors say infants should drink only milk or formula. Kidneys can only expel about half a liter at most an hour. Drinking more than ones’ kidneys can handle – which is gallons and gallons of water at a time – will cause an over-hydration problem with severe adverse effects.
Like other forms of hazing, water overdosing is a game that finds its roots in selection and humiliation of candidates who want to fit into a group. Given the amount of increasing attention on hazing that is related to alcohol consumption and subsequent crimes, water was seen as a safe alternative to continue selection practices without getting into as much trouble. Unfortunately, no one at the time it started being used understood how too much water affected the body. It was simply not a problem heard of until college hazing parties and radio contests started using the technique for fun. This article on ScientificAmerican.com tells stories of water overdose fatalities that have occurred in recent years.
Another driving reason for its rise is that the victims voluntarily put themselves into the situation to be part of a group. Fraternity and sorority connections in college have for decades had a powerful draw on many teens and young adults, especially those wanting to feel connected to groups of popularity and under the belief that such groups provide connections for career paths later in life. Consequently, the incentive to be accepted is often considered far more important than the risks of drinking too much water.
Finally, as mentioned before, no one generally thinks that water is a dangerous thing to ingest. Everyone is taught that water is essential to human life, and that the body is two-thirds water in substance. So it should be perfectly alright for a person to over-drink water. He would just need to go to the bathroom a lot and have a sore stomach from over-drinking. Or so the logic goes.
Clearly, the rule of everything in moderation definitely applies to the use of water as it does everything else. Any type of situation that requires a person to ingest huge amounts of something that is not normal behavior for consumption is going to have a bad effect. While there are some people who can eat over 50 hot dogs in one sitting, they have been doing so for years and have conditioned their body to deal with such intake. The average person would likely throw up after ten hot dogs because their body would reject the mass. Water overdose should be treated as the same risk.
Teens and college students faced with a scenario of water intoxication should get out of the place immediately. Any involvement can put them at a high risk of death. Worse, the condition may not happen immediately. A number of cases have happened where the death from water overdosing occurred up to four days later as the body just gives up trying to deal with ingesting too much liquid at one time.
Parents concerned about their teens and grown children need to bring up the issue and communicate the risks to their kids repeatedly. In many cases, they may be blown off as behind the times or paranoid. It doesn’t matter. The communication on this kind of behavior and its risks needs to happen early on, even in high school, and carried forward. Don’t assume a child already knows all the details and what to avoid. That’s often the case when parents just mention an issue and then let their child off the hook when he or she acknowledge passing knowledge of it. A proactive parent covers the risks of water overdosing completely, even if their child thinks they are being paranoid. The more a parent hammers home the risk, the more likely the child will think twice before putting himself or herself in the situation.
Don’t rely on warning signs being on the side of water bottles or colleges providing behavior guidelines to students. Water is a basic food product, and it’s found just about anywhere, so the likelihood of water having generic warnings on it is probably nil and none. Further, colleges and universities are very unlikely to put out anything that would cast their school or student body in a bad light to prospective parents. They are, after all, a for-profit institution, so they want to maintain an institutional image that doesn’t include dumb ideas like water overdosing on a Friday night at a party. It doesn’t do well for student recruitment.
The Best Cure is Prevention
Games involving water overdosing need to be avoided altogether. The damage can happen quickly and, even if a person survives, the effects can be permanent and life-debilitating. A brain is not something a person should mess with in any approach. For something as silly as a water drinking challenge, it’s a poor reason to risk brain damage or death. No matter how important being part of a group is, even at college, risking one’s life or ongoing brain health is simply not a good trade-off.
Peer pressure will often be one of the ingredients that push students and young people to do silly things in general. Incentives often draw people to take big risks as well. These choices need to be made understanding the full impacts of water intoxication to the body. And most people, when fully understanding the risks, won’t be bullied into the idea in the first place.