No Prize Is Worth Your Life

There are very few parents who won’t try to get their children something they want if the parents believe it’s within their ability to do so.

That’s probably what motivated Jennifer Strange to enter the "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest sponsored by radio station KDND 107.9. Strange and the other contestants competed to see how much water they could drink without going to the bathroom. Every 15 minutes contestants were given a bottle of water to drink. The original amounts were only 8 fl. oz., but the size of the bottle increased as contestants progressed.

The contest ended tragically for Strange, who died from water intoxication a few hours after participating in the contest.

Water intoxication, or hyperhydration, is a disturbance in normal brain function that occurs when the balance of electrolytes in the body is upset by a very rapid intake of water. The levels of electrolytes in the body, especially the sodium compounds, must be strictly maintained if our organs are to function properly. When people take in water at a more rapid pace than they excrete it, the sodium becomes diluted and the result is a potentially dangerous shift in the electrolyte balance.

This affects the production of nerve impulses, and hinders mental processes. Cells start to expand from the extra water. As they swell, they put stress on the body’s organs, especially the brain. It also begins to swell due to the increase in fluids around its tissue, and the person complains of a severe headache just as Strange did when she left work that Friday after the contest. Death occurs a short time after.

If we can extract anything positive from Strange's unnecessary death, it is the opportunity this tragic event gives us to discuss the very serious, and even deadly, health consequences that can result from participating in contests, games, pranks or dares that require participants to abuse their bodies.

The tradition of eating as much as you can, as fast as you can, for money was born in 1916 at the very first Nathan's Famous Hot Dog eating contest on Coney Island, N.Y. No one knew back then what health risks founder Nathan Handwerker unleashed with his famous stunt.

Today, however, medical experts know that participants in these kinds of contests run the risk of rupturing their esophagus and stomach, and tearing tissue in their throat and vocal cords. The most common risks are choking from eating too fast and vomiting because they are too full.

Marathon dancing is another American contest tradition born out of economic need. It first began in 1923, when Alma Cummings danced for 27 hours without stopping. This American, who broke the previous British record, changed partners six times during the event. Her feat (pun intended)earned her 15 minutes of fame, and sparked a trend that reached its heyday in the late 20s and 30s when out-of-work Americans saw marathon dancing as a means to a quick payday.

The 1969 Jane Fonda movie, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, tells the story of several contestants in a Depression era dance marathon.

Contestants in dance marathons were allowed 15 minute breaks to eat and rest, but otherwise they had to remain in motion on the dance floor at all times. As time went on, the health of these rest-deprived dancers deteriorated rapidly. Part of the festivities surrounding the event involved spectators taunting couples as their bodies gradually weakened and eventually collapsed. There were instances of deaths associated with these dance marathons.

Anyone who has ever pledged a sorority or fraternity remembers the time-honored tradition of keeping pledges up all night. Eager underclassmen gladly go through the ordeal of sleeplessness to win the right to call the other house members “brother” or “sister.” However, fraternity and sorority pledges may be getting a lot more than they bargained for.

Sleep deprivation interferes with cognitive function and impairs a person's judgment. It can also trigger a pre-existing psychological illness, like clinical depression. It may even lead to sudden psychosis.

A sleep-deprived person suffering from those conditions would have trouble thinking clearly, communicating, distinguishing reality and behaving rationally.

If you plan to enter a promotional contest that involves pushing your physical stamina to extremes, use common sense. Listen when your body signals that it has had enough. There is no prize that any contest can offer that can compensate your loved ones if they lose you.

Fox News Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.

Click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit