Before my friend takes off on these half-day-long hikes in AZ, there’s one piece of advice for her that’s a must-take: “Please carry water and do drink plenty of it.” You’re not going to believe this, but this hiker also happens to be a doctor! Her response invariably goes something like this, “Ask me to do anything, but please don’t suggest that I drink water; it feels like you’re asking me to swallow some arsenic!” Duh… this is for her!

Surviving Without Water

Q. The heat in Phoenix and the distribution of emergency water made me wonder, how long can you live without drinking water?

A. Most reference works say a human will die within three to five days, but some experts believe a person can sometimes live for 10 days or perhaps even 2 weeks, depending on many factors, including surrounding conditions, physical condition and how much water was taken in beforehand, the extent of activity and whether there are injuries.

Climate is important. Heat increases water loss as the body tries to cool itself through the evaporation of sweat, so avoiding heat and staying as inactive as possible are important to prolonging life in extreme conditions.

A big risk in water deprivation is kidney failure, as the kidneys require water moving through them to purify the bloodstream. Toxic conditions can quickly develop. As water loss continues, the body’s internal temperature cannot be reduced by sweating, and other organs overheat and fail.

In 1989, a robust man was pulled alive from earthquake rubble in Oakland, Calif., after 90 hours, having survived both injuries and dehydration. But he needed dialysis immediately, and he was on the verge of heart failure.

His condition improved enough that dialysis was discontinued, but he died several days later of respiratory failure.

At the time, doctors credited his robust physical health, relatively cool temperatures and his inactivity for helping him survive as long as he did. Temperatures were in the 60’s, and doctors estimated he had lost only five quarts of water. The average adult loses about two and a half quarts of water a day through breathing, excretion and sweating.

The above Q&A was published today in The New York Times by C. Claiborne Ray.

Thank you, New York Times, thank you, Ray.

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