Why Is Drinking Salt Water Harmful To The Body?

It’s Never A Good Idea To Drink Saltwater, No Matter How Tempting.

I think something that we can all agree on is that drinking saltwater is at best unpleasant. But did you know that it can also be dangerous? I know, it seems odd that something that covers over seventy percent of the earth’s surface could be dangerous to you. So, why is drinking saltwater dangerous? Today we’ll explore just that, by examining;

  • What does drinking saltwater do to the body
  • What are some of the symptoms of salt poisoning
  • What you can do to stop or reverse these symptoms
  • What are some good alternatives to drinking saltwater

Have you ever been to the beach? You’re swimming around in the ocean, minding your own business and somehow you manage to swallow some water. Aside from the taste you think no big deal right? But shortly after, an upset stomach is what you’ve got. If you’ve ingested a significant quantity, that might be a problem.

Some fads have emerged that encourage people to drink small amounts of saltwater daily to effect a sort of system purge. That isn’t necessarily harmful, so long as the amount remains small, and is balanced out with freshwater. The negative side effects happen when someone is forced to drink saltwater consistently as their only source of water.

How Saltwater Can Become An Option For Many

You may be thinking that there wouldn’t be a situation where you need to drink saltwater exclusively. What would be the most common ways that saltwater could become a viable water source?

drinking salt water


  • According to The Water Project, almost one billion people the world over lack access to clean and safe drinking water. In a situation such as this, close proximity to the ocean could make it look like an option.
  • Cultures that survive in arid regions depend on annual rainfalls to replenish their clean water sources.
  • When rains in dependent regions are less than expected, or more devastatingly a drought happens, saltwater sources may seem like the only ones available.
  • Increasingly all over the world, contamination of freshwater sources have become an alarmingly common occurrence. If that ever happens and you’re in such a location without freshwater sources such as rivers, drinking from the ocean begins to look good when thirst sets in.

In developing countries, freshwater sources in rural areas can be scarce. The travel time to a source may be as much as half a day if one has to walk to the source. If there is a coastal source nearby, and people aren’t educated to the dangers of consuming large quantities of saltwater, it becomes an option.

what happens if you drink salt water

As much as it seems water is simply water, it really is not. Because of the how saltwater becomes a part of the ocean, it also has additional minerals and a higher salinity level that our bodies can’t easily tolerate. In areas of high ground pollution there is a higher acidity level because of runoff. But the biggest problem is the salt levels it contains, so let’s examine what happens when you drink saltwater.

We can say that drinking saltwater is bad for you, but like with most things examples are the best ways of getting our ideas across. Before reading the following sections, ask yourself these questions. Why would drinking saltwater be harmful to the human body? If freshwater is in short supply or not available, why can’t you drink salt water?

What happens to the body when you drink salt water?

In a pinch you drink salt water because you’re thirsty and become worried about getting dehydrated. What you’ve done is counterproductive though, because you’ll end up losing more water volume than you’re taking in. How does that happen? Well by a process called osmosis. That’s a really fancy way of saying that your body is expelling the salt from the water.

The Kidneys, Your Body’s Defender.

To understand the process we need to talk about our kidneys and what they do. Think of your kidneys as the trashman.

why can't you drink salt water


  • They filter the waste in our blood and then stores that in our bodies in the form of urine.
  • It then gets rid of that urine helping to keep our bodies healthy.
  • This is why when someone has kidneys that don’t function well, dialysis is needed to help clean the blood and other ickiness out of the system.

With me so far? Good. Now the kidneys only process liquids in our body, solid matter is handled somewhere else by another system. But here’s the kicker, kidneys can only create urine from liquids that are less than 2% salt, or less salty than the water being ingested. Saltwater is usually at least 3.5% salt. So then how can the kidneys process this liquid for expulsion?

The answer is, they can’t. At least not without taking liquid from other parts of our systems to try and lower the blood's salt volume, so that it can get rid of it. What happens if you drink salt water, is that your body will expel half more water than it’s taking in because it’s trying to lower the salt content in the blood.

But the kidneys aren’t the only thing that gets affected by the inability to process this higher salt content. Other organs become affected and cease to function either properly or at all. But since saltwater poisoning can mimic symptoms of other illnesses and conditions, let's take a look at how simple or severe those reactions can be.

Why Is Drinking Saltwater Dangerous?

Remember what we talked before? How other systems in the body are also affected by an overabundance of salt and the inability to remove it? Ok, this is where we discuss how these systems are affected, their reactions and how those will affect you.

why is drinking salt water dangerous


Have you ever been out with friends and against your better judgement had maybe a little too much wine? You might feel somewhat off your game, your reactions become slower and your thought process a bit muddled. That was a long way of saying that you’ve become intoxicated. Early signs of salt poisoning will look the same, because you have in fact become intoxicated.

What Intoxication Looks Like.

We call the process with both alcohol and salt intoxication, because the same system is in charge of the response, the central nervous system (CNS). Without getting into all the complexities of it, it’s safe to say that the central nervous system is responsible for just about every function in the body.

  • It’s the control hub of the body.
  • It regulates everything from thinking to breathing and movement.
  • In both intoxication processes what the CNS does is attempt to keep the body functioning.
  • It does this by shutting down what it deems to be the least important functions while it tries to destress the body and organs.
  • So your thinking might become stunted, and you’re having problems making connections between thoughts, but you’ll still keep breathing and your limbs work.
why is drinking salt water harmful


Salt poisoning can have anything from very mild symptoms such as jitteriness, lethargy and confusion. To more complex and deadly reactions such as dehydration that can then lead to a whole host of issues including a spike in blood pressure, seizure and coma. Let’s talk a bit about how these happen.

What Are The Effects of Saltwater Poisoning?

The jitters may not seem like a terrible reaction to have, merely a bit uncomfortable. But keep in mind that along with with jitters comes

  • an increase in respiration, blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Continued exposure to both those symptoms can lead to much more severe responses such as a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack.
  • Likewise lethargy and confusion can impair judgment and inhibit good decision making.
  • Confusion can cause you to not realise the severity or urgency of the symptoms that you’re experiencing.
  • Coupled with lethargy, this can leave you unable to seek the help that you need in a timely manner.

While those milder symptoms can sound anywhere from annoying to scary, if left untended they lead to much more severe, life threatening complications such as fluid build up on the brain and in the lungs, seizures and coma, all of which can eventually lead to death.

The path to death from salt poisoning is a domino effect, but can happen in a number of ways that begin with damage to brain cells caused by bleeding around or in the brain. They do not always lead to death, but it’s important to catch them as early as possible, once you’ve had a seizure it becomes more difficult to turn back the clock. Minute brain damage happens with every seizure.

why would drinking salt water be harmful


For this discussion we’ll refer back to the CNS. We’ve already talked about how the CNS regulates the body. One of the ways that it does that is by sending messages via electric currents along our synapses to connecting neurons. Sounds confusing, but you can think of neurons as two islands connected by a bridge, to get something from one side to the next, you have to cross the bridge.

When a seizure happens, it’s caused by abnormal electrical activity.

  • Either the synapses are over-firing and bombarding neurons with too much information, or not enough is being sent.
  • Because a seizure almost always involves brain bleeding to some degree, the length and severity of it can lead to a coma.
  • A coma while not always permanent can lead to death.
  • Salt poisoning can cause seizures when it builds up in the blood and brain cells.
  • Build up in the brain cells, cause the synapses to misfire either too much or too little, resulting in seizures.

Is There Any Way To Reverse Saltwater Poisoning?

If you’ve ingested only a small amount of saltwater, from say swimming in the ocean or something equally innocuous, there are things that you can do on your own that could reduce or reverse the effects, but there are things to keep in mind while doing so.

what does drinking salt water do
  • The best way to reverse any potential side-effect is to consume a larger volume of freshwater to dilute it.
  • Sometimes your body will act as its own agent and purge the water on it’s own. It’s still important, even in that situation to replace the water you’ve lost.
  • However, when trying to replace the saltwater volume with freshwater, you don’t want to do so too quickly.
  • Because the body and brain will adapt to the higher concentration of salt rather quickly, rapid infusion of freshwater can cause brain cells to swell before it can effectively rid itself of saltwater, which can lead to brain swelling, damage and death.

In a situation where freshwater isn’t easily available to you, but will be shortly, attempting to purge the saltwater is a good start. If you’ve had too much to purge effectively, and no freshwater is on hand, electrolyte rich alternatives such as coconuts are a good alternative. However if this method is used, you should see a physician quickly after to assure that an imbalance hasn’t occurred.

In the event that someone has already started to exhibit some of the more severe symptoms of salt poisoning, it’s imperative to get them to a physician, hospital or para-medical personnel as quickly as possible.

What are some good alternatives to relying on saltwater?

So what can we use to replace salt water when fresh water sources are unavailable? Most commonly there are some fruit and vegetables that have a high enough water content, that they may be able to stave off dehydration from some time.

salt water be harmful


The Most Easily Recognisable Alternatives.

  • Cucumbers, tomatoes, celery and most vegetables will do.
  • If you can find coconuts great! They’re a good source of hydration and electrolytes.
  • Just about any fruit has a high water content, so those are good as well.
  • However, since fruit also contains monosaccharides or simple sugars, you should be careful as your insulin levels may rise which presents it’s own set of bad symptoms with risk of death.
  • Berries and melons are best, fruit such as bananas and mangoes should be avoided if possible because of the higher sugar content.

Off The Beaten Path Alternatives.

They may not be as tasty, but there are a lot of plants to be found in the wild, and not so wild, that have high water contents that can be used to ward off dehydration. Succulents are a decent source of water, however, not all are created equally and some will have the opposite effect of making you ill due to the high alkaline levels.

salt water dangerous
  • Sempervivum, better known as hens and chicks, is one succulent that has a high water content in it’s large waxy leaves.
  • You’ve probably heard that cacti are great if short on water they aren’t. Most cacti have alkalinity and are tough and fibrous inside.
  • Prickly pear cacti, so known for the large sweet fruit that grows on the leaf tip, is the only one recommended when short on water.

In addition to the fruit and vegetables that we know are edible, there are also a number of plants that can be used as water replacements.

  • Miner's Lettuce, a wild plant native to North America is high in vitamin C and great for hydration. It’s a sweet plant that can be identified by it’s very light green leaves and the stem that grows up through them. It’s a flower bearing plant that will have small white or pink flowers that are also edible.
  • Most vines are also good at holding drinkable water. A good rule of thumb to employ when deciding if a vine is safe to use for water, is to check the diameter. Ones over an inch and a half thick are generally water bearing. To determine if the water is safe to drink break the vine and wait to see if the liquid runs clear. If it does, you’ve got water!
what happens if you drink salt water

So we’ve discussed in depth why drinking saltwater is harmful and ultimately dangerous to the human body. We’ve explored the many ways that it can cause the body to malfunction, for lack of a better term. But I think in the end we can all agree, the best way to avert saltwater poisoning altogether is to avoid over-consumption.

Baring that, there are methods that we can use to mitigate or reverse the effects, such as finding alternatives of fruit, vegetables and some plants we wouldn’t normally think to associate with hydration. But, bear in mind that while I hope these tips were helpful, none of them are a stand-in for getting medical assistance as soon as possible.


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