What Would Actually Happen if you Drank Sea Water?

You’re out surfing for the first time, and you manage to stand up on your first wave! You’re smiling and laughing, when suddenly, you go under, and because you were smiling, you swallow a bit of seawater.

If you’ve only swallowed a little sea water, you don’t need to worry as you won’t have any adverse effects from doing so. It is, however, very dangerous to drink sea water in place of freshwater as it will only dehydrate you and cause damage to your organs.

Read on to learn more about drinking ocean water and when you should be concerned about a friend who has swallowed some on accident.

Can You Drink Sea Water?

The short answer is no, you cannot drink seawater. Even though it has the word ‘water’ in the title seawater is much different from the water your body needs in order to sustain itself.

If you are, say, stranded, and have nothing to drink besides ocean water, this is actually the worst decision you can make. Drinking salt water will not help your thirst at all, it will only make it much much worse. This happens because the salt in the ocean water dehydrates you even faster, making the situation even worse than if you had drank nothing at all.

But what happens when you accidentally swallow a little ocean water? Will you die? Probably not, but you also may experience some unpleasant side effects.

The Side Effects of Drinking Sea Water

The water in the ocean is very salty, four times saltier than the water naturally found in your body. Think about adding four times the amount of salt to a recipe–you can bet it won’t taste good!

This large amount of salt suddenly finding its way into your digestive system will disrupt your cells as the body has a delicate balance of sodium that it must work to maintain.

If you accidentally swallow a little ocean water, or maybe your child did on his or her first adventure to the beach, below are some of the things you can expect to happen.

You Will Need to Urinate

When the salt enters your system, the body will begin to work as hard and as fast as it can to get the excess salt out. It will do this by sending the salt to the kidneys. If your body has enough other moisture, the kidneys will mix this with the salt and it will be expelled from the body.

If you’ve swallowed enough, this process may take a bit and you may feel the need to urinate quite frequently for the rest of the day.

You Will Get Dehydrated

Obviously, the above process requires your kidneys to pull liquids from elsewhere in your body. If you are well hydrated, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if you are already a bit low on fluids, your body won’t be able to have enough to expel the excess salt so it will need to pull from your cells, causing dehydration.

Here are the symptoms of dehydration:

  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Delirium (saying things that don’t make sense)
  • Dizziness or other vision problems
  • Headache
  • Cramps

If you begin to experience these symptoms it’s best to seek medical help right away.

You Will Feel Thirsty

After swallowing a few mouthfuls of ocean water you will feel very thirsty. This is your sign to head to a shop and buy a bottle of clean drinking water in order to avoid the aforementioned dehydration.

The more salt water you swallowed, the more regular water you will need. If you think you’ve swallowed a lot, grab two bottles of water just to be on the safe side.

You May Get Sick

Besides just being salty, the water in the ocean is anything but clean. There are microorganisms your body isn’t used to encountering in it. Not to mention there could be bits and remnants of sea creature excrement or dead sea creatures in that mouthful you swallow.

You will most likely experience a digestive type illness complete with diarrhea, cramps, and bloating. Generally, these symptoms will pass within 24 hours, but if they don’t you will need to call a doctor right away. For any babies that develop diarrhea, a doctor should be called right away.

Once you’ve swallowed the sea water there is nothing you can do about this, you’ll just have to wait and see if you develop symptoms of an illness. If you do, be sure to talk with a medical professional and let them know you have swallowed sea water recently.

Can You Make Clean Water from Ocean Water?

On the off chance you are trapped on a deserted island and reading this article, you are in luck as even though you can’t drink the ocean water, you can use it to make clean water. Here’s how you do it.

Step 1: Dig a hole

Dig a hole near the ocean where you can get water but far enough away that it won’t be disturbed by the tides.

Step 2: Place a Cup in the Middle

Place a cup in the middle of the hole ensuring it will stand on its own. Hopefully, you have one of those on you.

Step 3: Cover with Plastic

With any luck you’ll also have plastic wrap or tarp you can use to cover the hole, pushing the center into the cup to allow any condensation to run from the tarp/plastic into the cup.

Step 4: Bury the Ends

Bury the ends of the plastic so they stay in place.

Step 5: Wait

Now you just have to wait for mother nature to run its course. This could take a very long time, so it’s best to start this process the minute you realize you are stranded rather than waiting until you are thirsty.

Editor's Note: You can also perform the above experiment during a day trip to the beach with kids. They will get a kick out of it!

Can Machines Turn Ocean Water into Freshwater?

Don’t feel like doing the above process? Luckily technology has advanced enough that you don’t have to. There are tablets and water bottles which will turn ocean water into drinking water, so be sure to bring that on your excursion with you.

Additionally, many countries around the world have developed plants that turn ocean water into drinking water. This process isn’t perfect however as, during the process of removing the salt from the water and cleaning it, many of the good minerals are removed too. Currently, Israel and San Diego (USA) are two major areas where this process is used to create fresh drinking water.

Can You Boil Sea Water?

Well, of course, you can boil sea water, but no, this will not make it drinkable. While boiling will remove any parasites and bacteria from the water, it will not remove the salt.

Therefore you will be left with a pot of water too salty to even properly cook pasta. You are better off just using fresh water for drinking and cooking.

How Long Can You Survive on Seawater?

Because seawater begins dehydrating you the minute you drink it, you will not last long. Most people in survival stories know not to drink seawater as it actually makes you die quicker.

In the cases where people have run out of water at sea, and dehydration has sunk in, those who drank seawater typically died within 24 hours.

If you are talking about picking up the practice tomorrow just to see, know that you should not do so and that you will likely only survive 2-3 days drinking seawater until your organs begin to shut down from the overabundance of salt in your system.

Final Thoughts on Drinking Ocean Water

No matter how dire your situation gets, you should never drink ocean water. It is not safe to do so and it will lead to your demise. If you have time, however, you can construct a beachside distill system to make ocean water safe to drink.

For those reading this because they swallowed a bit of water while at the beach, don’t panic, and have a few sips of water (or a whole bottle) you’ll feel better soon enough!

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