Background.

Although water intoxication leading to brain damage is common in children, fatal child abuse by forced water intoxication is virtually unknown.

Methods.

During the prosecution of the homicide of an abused child by forced water intoxication, we reviewed all similar cases in the United States where the perpetrators were found guilty of homicide. In 3 children punished by forced water intoxication who died, we evaluated: the types of child abuse, clinical presentation, electrolytes, blood gases, autopsy findings, and the fate of the perpetrators.

Findings.

Three children were forced to drink copious amounts of water (over 6 L). All had seizures, emesis, and coma, presenting to hospitals with hypoxemia (Po2 = 44 ± 8 mm Hg) and hyponatremia (plasma Na = 112 ± 2 mmol/L). Although all showed evidence of extensive physical abuse, the history of forced water intoxication was not revealed to medical personnel, thus none of the 3 children were treated for their hyponatremia. All 3 patients died and at autopsy had cerebral edema and aspiration pneumonia. The perpetrators of all three deaths by forced water intoxication were eventually tried and convicted.

Interpretation.

Forced water intoxication is a new generally fatal syndrome of child abuse that occurs in children previously subjected to other types of physical abuse. Patients present with coma, hyponatraemia, and hypoxemia of unknown etiology. If health providers were made aware of the association, the hyponatremia is potentially treatable.

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