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Diabetes Insipidus

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Diabetes Insipidus written for patients

Diabetes insipidus (DI) is a condition caused by hyposecretion of, or insensitivity to the effects of, antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also known as arginine vasopressin (AVP). ADH is synthesised in the hypothalamus and transported as neurosecretory vesicles to the posterior pituitary. There it is released into the circulation, governed by plasma osmolality. Its deficiency or failure to act causes an inability to concentrate urine in the distal renal tubules, leading to the passage of copious volumes of dilute urine. Usually the sufferer passes >3 litres/24 hours of low osmolality (<300 mOsmol/kg) urine.

There are two major forms of DI:[1]

  • Cranial DI: decreased secretion of ADH. Decreased secretion of ADH reduces the ability to concentrate urine and so causes polyuria and polydipsia.
  • Nephrogenic DI: decreased ability to concentrate urine because of resistance to ADH in the kidney.

There are two other forms of DI (both caused by deficiencies in ADH; however, the deficiencies do not result from a defect in the neurohypophysis or kidneys):[1] 

  • Gestational DI: results from degradation of vasopressin by a placental vasopressinase. Gestational DI may be associated with increased complications of pregnancy, including pre-eclampsia.[2]
  • Primary polydipsia (dipsogenic DI): caused by a primary defect in osmoregulation of thirst. Dipsogenic DI has been reported in tuberculous meningitis, multiple sclerosis, and neurosarcoidosis.
  • The combined prevalence of cranial DI and nephrogenic DI combined is estimated at 1 in 25,000.[3]
  • Nephrogenic DI is the most common adverse effect of lithium and occurs in up to 40% of patients.[4]
  • Inherited causes account for approximately 1-2% of all cases of DI.[1]

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Cranial DI

This is usually due to disease of the hypothalamus or surrounding tissues. Posterior pituitary disease tends not to cause DI, as secretion continues in the hypothalamus, unless a pituitary tumour extends above the sella, putting pressure on the hypothalamus. See also the separate article on Hypopituitarism.

  • Acquired:
  • Inherited:
    • Autosomal recessive combination of DI, diabetes mellitus, optic atrophy, deafness (DIDMOAD) - Wolfram syndrome.[5] 
    • Autosomal dominant mutations of vasopressin gene.

Nephrogenic DI

  • Congenital/genetic nephrogenic DI:
    • X-linked mutation in V2 ADH-receptor gene.[8]
    • Autosomal recessive defect in aquaporin 2 (AQP2) gene – water channel in distal renal tubule.[9][10]
    • Sporadic nephrogenic DI with mental retardation and intracerebral calcification (exceedingly rare).[11]


The onset of symptoms can be vague and insidious, such that the person affected may suspect nothing untoward, despite having a urinary volume that would be very troubling had it come on acutely:

  • Patients may experience marked polyuria. The daily urine volume is relatively constant for each patient but is variable between patients (3-20 litres).[1]
  • Polydipsia and chronic thirst are usually a feature and there may be a predilection for very cold drinks, and usually water.
  • Nocturia occurring several times per night is common, particularly in older adults. Children may develop nocturnal enuresis, where they have previously been continent.
  • Infants may present with irritability, failure to thrive, protracted crying, hyperthermia, anorexia and fatiguability or feeding problems.
  • If there is damage to the bladder through chronic overdistension, then urinary incontinence may ensue. This is a particular problem in those who suffer inborn causes of nephrogenic DI, particularly AQP2 mutations.[10]


  • There may be signs of dehydration and the bladder can be grossly enlarged and palpable.
  • 24-hour urinary collection will show urine volume >3 litres/24 hours.

Other causes of polyuria and thirst.

See also the separate article Pituitary Function Tests.

  • Biochemistry - plasma glucose, U&Es, and plasma and urine osmolality should all be measured.
  • Fluid deprivation test with response to desmopressin. The patient is deprived of fluids for up to eight hours or 5% loss of body weight, following which desmopressin (DDAVP®) 2 micrograms (IM) is given. See table below for interpretation of the results.
  • Plasma vasopressin levels and osmolality in response to infusion of 5% hypertonic saline at 0.05 ml/kg/min for two hours may be measured in cases of diagnostic difficulty.
  • A therapeutic trial of low-dose desmopressin is another option, with careful monitoring of plasma osmolality or serum sodium. Cranial DI patients improve, and those with nephrogenic DI are unaffected. Those with PP develop hyponatraemia and may stop drinking.
  • MRI of the pituitary, hypothalamus and surrounding tissues, including the pineal gland, may be contributory in helping to determine the underlying cause.
  • Renal tract ultrasound or intravenous pyelogram (IVP) may be used to assess for obstructive complications caused by the high urinary back-pressure.

Classification of causes of diabetes insipidus on basis of water deprivation and DDAVP® response

Urine osmolality after fluid deprivation (mOsm/kg)
Urine osmolality after DDAVP® (mOsm/kg)
Likely diagnosis
Primary/psychogenic polydipsia
Partial CDI or NDI or PP or diuretic abuse

Cranial DI

  • As the primary problem is a hormone deficiency, physiological replacement with desmopressin is usually effective. This can be given orally, intranasally or parenterally.
  • Mild cases of DI (urine output 3-4 litres/24 hrs) can be managed by ingestion of water to quench thirst.
  • It is essential to avoid chronic overdosage with desmopressin, which will cause hyponatraemia.
  • Long-term management:
    • Because of the risk of hyponatraemia, occasional (1- to 3-monthly) measurements of serum sodium are advised.
    • Some endocrinologists recommend missing desmopressin treatment one day each week to avoid the development of hyponatraemia.

Nephrogenic DI

  • If daily urine volume is <4 litres/24 hrs and the patient is not suffering from severe dehydration then definitive therapy is not always necessary.
  • It is important for patients always to have access to drinking water and to drink enough to satiate their thirst.
  • Correct any metabolic abnormality.
  • Stop any drugs that may be causing the problem.
  • High-dose DDAVP® may be used with success in mild to moderate cases of nephrogenic DI.
  • Combination treatment with a thiazide diuretic and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug may be effective in reducing the volume of urine produced. 
  • Patients with nephrogenic DI undergoing surgery need careful multidisciplinary management with close attention to fluid regimens and DDAVP® administration.[12]
  • Patients with genetic causes or severe nephrogenic DI may need to practise clean, intermittent catheterisation to reduce urinary tract back-pressure complications.[10]
  • DDAVP® can worsen myocardial ischaemia in susceptible patients; there may be a need for nitrates/other anti-anginal medications.
  • Patients with DI need careful monitoring of fluid balance and therapy following surgery, with multidisciplinary care.[12]
  • Patients with genetic causes of nephrogenic DI are prone to bladder dysfunction and hydro-ureter/hydronephrosis if the condition is undiagnosed or untreated for an appreciable period of time.[10]
  • Outlook is usually very good once treatment or correct fluid management has been instituted. Specialist follow-up is required to monitor for complications and response to therapy.
  • Death is rare in adults, as long as water is available. Affected children, the elderly and any adult with acute illness or surgery are more at risk of severe dehydration, hypernatraemia, fever, cardiovascular collapse and death.[1]
  • Patients with inborn errors are more likely to suffer complications as the underlying cause cannot be removed.

It is important to monitor for the complication of lithium use through at least annual review of symptoms of nephrogenic DI and 24-hour urinary volume measurement. Patients on lithium should be made aware of this potential complication and warned about symptoms that should prompt them to seek medical review.

Further reading & references

  1. Khardori R et al; Diabetes Insipidus, Medscape, Oct 2012
  2. Ananthakrishnan S; Diabetes insipidus in pregnancy: etiology, evaluation, and management. Endocr Pract. 2009 May-Jun;15(4):377-82. doi: 10.4158/EP09090.RA.
  3. Di Iorgi N, Napoli F, Allegri AE, et al; Diabetes insipidus--diagnosis and management. Horm Res Paediatr. 2012;77(2):69-84. doi: 10.1159/000336333. Epub 2012 Mar 16.
  4. Grunfeld JP, Rossier BC; Lithium nephrotoxicity revisited. Nat Rev Nephrol. 2009 May;5(5):270-6. doi: 10.1038/nrneph.2009.43.
  5. Wolfram Syndrome 1, WFS1; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  6. Livingstone C, Rampes H; Lithium: a review of its metabolic adverse effects.; J Psychopharmacol. 2006 May;20(3):347-55. Epub 2005 Sep 20.
  7. Sainz Bueno JA, Villarejo Ortiz P, Hidalgo Amat J, et al; Transient diabetes insipidus during pregnancy: a clinical case and a review of the syndrome.; Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2005 Feb 1;118(2):251-4.
  8. Diabetes Insipidus, Nephrogenic, X-linked; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  9. Diabetes Insipidus, Nephrogenic, Autosomal; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  10. Shalev H, Romanovsky I, Knoers NV, et al; Bladder function impairment in aquaporin-2 defective nephrogenic diabetes insipidus.; Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2004 Mar;19(3):608-13.
  11. Diabetes Insipidus, Nephrogenic, with Mental Retardation and Intracerebral Calcification; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  12. Moug SJ, McKee RF, O'Reilly DS, et al; The perioperative challenge of nephrogenic diabetes insipidus: a multidisciplinary approach.; Surgeon. 2005 Apr;3(2):89-94.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Sean Kavanagh
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
1061 (v26)
Last Checked:
Next Review:
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