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Excessive Thirst

Alternate Names

  • polydipsia

Definition

Excessive thirst is an abnormally strong desire to drink liquids. It can related to an underlying medical condition.

What is going on in the body?

Increased thirst is not considered excessive when it is related to a recent lack of drinking fluids. Also, people who have always had a strong desire to drink a lot of fluids are not considered to have excessive thirst. There are many potential causes for this condition.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

There are many possible causes for excessive thirst. These include:
  • increased exercise, which can increase the body's water requirements
  • dehydration. This occur from any of a number of causes including diarrhea, infection, hot weather, vomiting, or the use of medications called diuretics that eliminate fluid from the body.
  • hormone imbalances. These may include a high level of thyroid hormone, a condition called hyperthyroidism, or a high level of adrenal hormones, called hyperadrenalism.
  • hypernatremia, which is a high level of sodium in the body
  • uncontrolled diabetes. This is a condition that causes an increase in blood sugar levels, triggering excessive thirst.
  • diabetes insipidus. Diabetes insipidus is a disease that causes people to urinate excessively and results in dehydration.
  • certain drugs or medications. The use of antihistamines, marijuana, caffeine, or alcohol can cause this condition.
  • psychogenic polydipsia, which is a psychiatric condition that causes a person to feel thirsty for no apparent reason
  • damage to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is rare.
Other causes are also possible. Sometimes, no cause can be found.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Prevention is often not possible. Drinking extra fluids before exercising can help prevent excessive thirst in this setting. Avoiding drugs and other substances responsible for excessive thirst can prevent these cases due. Taking medications as prescribed and checking blood sugars regularly can prevent some cases due to diabetes.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Sometimes the cause is obvious from the medical history and physical exam. In other cases, further testing is needed, depending on what is suspected. For example, a blood glucose level can be used to detect diabetes. A serum sodium test, usually performed as part of a broader blood chemistry panel, can detect hypernatremia. A blood alcohol level test can detect alcohol use. An x-ray test called a cranial CT scan may be done if brain damage is suspected.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Long-term effects are related to the cause. Uncontrolled diabetes can cause damage to many organs and even result in death. Cases due to dehydration can usually be treated successfully without long term effects. A person with psychogenic polydipsia can sometimes develop dangerous salt imbalances due to excessive water drinking.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Excessive thirst is not contagious and poses no risks to others. If the cause of excessive thirst is dehydration due to an infection, the infection may be contagious.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment is directed at the cause. For example, a person with diabetes may use insulin injections or other medications to control blood sugar levels. Someone who is dehydrated is given fluids.
If a person is unable to drink extra fluid, it can be supplied an through an intravenous (IV) tube, usually inserted in the arm. This may be necessary if a person is vomiting and cannot hold fluids down.
Someone with hyperthyroidism may need medication, surgery, or radioactive therapy to treat the condition. A person who abuses drugs may need drug rehabilitation. An individual who has psychogenic polydipsia is often treated with psychotherapy, and possibly medications.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects depend on the treatments used. For example, medications can cause allergic reactions, stomach upset or headaches. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or a reaction to the anesthetic.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Once treated, a person with dehydration often needs no further treatment. Someone with diabetes needs lifelong monitoring and treatment for their diabetes. An individual who stops abusing drugs may not longer experience excessive thirst.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any changes or response to treatment can be reported to the healthcare professional. Other monitoring is related to the cause. For example, an individual with diabetes needs to check his or her blood sugar levels every day.

Sources

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.

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