Family says 35-year-old mom of two died from drinking too much water

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An Indiana woman whose family said she died from drinking too much water too quickly has highlighted the issue of water toxicity or water poisoning, although a subsequent coroner’s report indicated multiple causes of death.

Ashley Miller Summers, a 35-year-old mother of two, died July 4 after consuming a large amount of water, her family said, including approximately two litres (four standard 500-mL bottles) within 20 minutes.

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“My sister who lives in Indiana was pronounced dead yesterday afternoon,” her brother wrote in a Facebook post. “Her brain swelled to the point that it cut off the blood supply to her brain. All this happened apparently from water toxicity.”

Water intoxication happens when there is too much water released from your kidneys, diluting the electrolytes in your body. This may cause hyponatremia, or low levels of sodium in the blood. Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure, headaches, confusion or disorientation, fatigue and muscle cramps. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention.

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Summers had been boating over the July 4 weekend and got severely dehydrated, her brother wrote. “On the Tuesday she drank a lot of water (at one point 4 bottles in less than 30 minutes). All this caused her brain tissue to start swelling. By Tuesday evening she was unconscious in the hospital and never woke up again.”

But almost two months later, a final report from the Tippecanoe County Coroner ruled that Summers’ death was not due to water toxicity. County Coroner Carrie Costello stated that after laboratory tests and analyses and a forensic autopsy, she concluded that Summers died from a combination of heat stroke, alcohol intake and an electrolyte imbalance. The official cause of death was listed as “cerebral edema and herniation with anoxic brain injury due to electrolyte imbalance.”

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While drinking too much water too quickly can cause an electrolyte imbalance, in Summers’ case that was not unequivocally the case, the coroner ruled.

Exactly how much water you need every day is complicated and varies by person and situation. The Mayo Clinic, citing research by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, suggests 3.7 litres for men and 2.7 for women, but this includes fluid from food and drinks as well as straight-up water.

A more reasonable goal might be two litres a day, which translates nicely into the old standard of “eight glasses a day” if you make it 250 mL per glass. More might be needed for pregnant women, during hot weather or when exercising. The Mayo Clinic also notes that if you are rarely thirsty and your urine is pale yellow, you’re probably on track. Dark yellow indicates dehydration, while clear might mean over-hydration.

It’s also important not to take in all that water at once.

“If she would have drank Gatorade, or took in the water more slowly, she would be alive,” Summers’ brother wrote. “To all my friends, do a little research on water toxicity. It may save someone’s life.”

Summers is survived by her husband and two daughters, both under the age of 10.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include information from the coroner’s report.

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