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Drowning / Near Drowning
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 T75.1
ICD-9 994.1
DiseasesDB 3957
MedlinePlus 000046
eMedicine emerg/744
MeSH C23.550.260.393

Drowning is death from suffocation (asphyxia) caused by a liquid entering the lungs and preventing the absorption of oxygen leading to cerebral hypoxia and myocardial infarction.[1]

Near drowning is the survival of a drowning event involving unconsciousness or water inhalation and can lead to serious secondary complications, including death, after the event.[1][2]

In many countries, drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children under 12 years old. For example, in the United States, it is the second leading cause of death (after motor vehicle crashes) in children 12 and younger.[3] Children have drowned in wading pools and even bath tubs. The rate of drowning in populations around the world varies widely according to their access to water, the climate and the national swimming culture. For example, typically the United Kingdom suffers 450 drownings per annum or 1 per 150,000 of population whereas the United States suffers 6,500 drownings or around 1 per 50,000 of population. Drowning related injuries are the fifth most likely cause of accidental death in the US. The rate of near drowning incidents is unknown.

Victims are more likely to be male, young or adolescent.[3] Surveys indicate that 10% of children under 5 have experienced a situation with a high risk of drowning.



Most drownings occur in water, 90% in freshwater (rivers, lakes and pools) 10% in seawater, drownings in other fluids are rare and often industrial accidents.

Common conditions and risk factors that may lead to drowning include but are not limited to: (In no particular order)

  • Failing to wear a PFD when boating.
  • Lack of supervision of young children (less than 5 years old).
  • Water conditions exceeding the swimmer's ability - turbulent or fast water, water out of depth, falling through ice, rip currents, undertows, currents, waves and eddies.
  • Entrapment - physically unable to get to the surface because of a lack of an escape route, being snagged or by being hampered by clothing or equipment.
  • Drug or alcohol use causing impaired judgment and/or physical incapacitation.
  • Cold (hypothermia), shock, injury or exhaustion causing incapacitation.
  • Acute illness while swimming causing incapacitation - heart attack, seizure or stroke.
  • Forcible submersion by another person - murder or misguided children's play.
  • Swimming after dark.
  • After rapid breathing to extend a breath-hold dive causing blackout - shallow water blackout.
  • Ascent from a deep breath-hold dive due to latent hypoxia causing blackout - deep water blackout.
  • Car crash causing the occupants to become submersed.

People have drowned in as little as 30 mm of water lying face down, in one case in a wheel rut. Children have drowned in baths, buckets and toilets; inebriates or those under the influence of drugs have died in puddles. For a more detailed list of causes see swimming.


Body's reaction to submersion

Submerging the face in water colder than about 21 °C (70 °F) triggers the mammalian diving reflex, found in all mammals, and especially in marine mammals such as whales and seals. This reflex protects the body by putting it into energy saving mode to maximize the time it can stay under water. The strength of this reflex is greater in colder water and has three principal effects:

  • Bradycardia, a slowing of the heart rate of up to 50% in humans.
  • Peripheral vasoconstriction, the restriction of the blood flow to the extremities to increase the blood and oxygen supply to the vital organs, especially the brain.
  • Blood Shift, the shifting of blood to the thoracic cavity, the region of the chest between the diaphragm and the neck, to avoid the collapse of the lungs under higher pressure during deeper dives.

The reflex action is automatic and allows both a conscious and an unconscious person to survive longer without oxygen under water than in a comparable situation on dry land. The exact mechanism for this effect has been debated and may be a result of brain cooling similar to the protective effects seen in patients treated with deep hypothermia.[4][5]

The reaction to oxygen deprivation

A conscious victim will hold his or her breath (see Apnea) and will try to access air, often resulting in panic, including rapid body movement. This uses up more oxygen in the blood stream and reduces the time to unconsciousness. The victim can voluntarily hold his or her breath for some time, but the breathing reflex will increase until the victim will try to breathe, even when submerged.

The breathing reflex in the human body is weakly related to the amount of oxygen in the blood but strongly related to the amount of carbon dioxide. During apnea, the oxygen in the body is used by the cells, and excreted as carbon dioxide. Thus, the level of oxygen in the blood decreases, and the level of carbon dioxide increases. Increasing carbon dioxide levels lead to a stronger and stronger breathing reflex, up to the breath-hold breakpoint, at which the victim can no longer voluntarily hold his or her breath. This typically occurs at an arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide of 55 mm Hg, but may differ significantly from individual to individual and can be increased through training.

The breath-hold break point can be suppressed or delayed either intentionally or unintentionally. Hyperventilation before any dive, deep or shallow, flushes out carbon dioxide in the blood resulting in a dive commencing with an abnormally low carbon dioxide level; a potentially dangerous condition known as hypocapnia. The level of carbon dioxide in the blood after hyperventilation may then be insufficient to trigger the breathing reflex later in the dive and a blackout may occur without warning and before the diver feels any urgent need to breathe. This can occur at any depth and is common in distance breath-hold divers in swimming pools. Hyperventilation is often used by both deep and distance free-divers to flush out carbon dioxide from the lungs to suppress the breathing reflex for longer. It is important not to mistake this for an attempt to increase the body's oxygen store. The body at rest is fully oxygenated by normal breathing and cannot take on any more. Breath holding in water should always be supervised by a second person, as by hyperventilating, one increases the risk of shallow water blackout because insufficient carbon dioxide levels in the blood fail to trigger the breathing reflex.

The reaction to water inhalation

If water enters the airways of a conscious victim, the victim will try to cough up the water or swallow it, thus inhaling more water involuntarily. Upon water entering the airways, both conscious and unconscious victims experience laryngospasm, that is the larynx or the vocal cords in the throat constrict and seal the air tube. This prevents water from entering the lungs. Because of this laryngospasm, water enters the stomach in the initial phase of drowning and very little water enters the lungs. Unfortunately, this can interfere with air entering the lungs, too. In most victims, the laryngospasm relaxes some time after unconsciousness and water can enter the lungs causing a "wet drowning". However, about 10-15% of victims maintain this seal until cardiac arrest. This is called "dry drowning", as no water enters the lungs. In forensic pathology, water in the lungs indicates that the victim was still alive at the point of submersion. Absence of water in the lungs may be either a dry drowning or indicates a death before submersion.


A continued lack of oxygen in the brain, hypoxia, will quickly render a victim unconscious usually around a blood partial pressure of oxygen of 25-30mmHg. An unconscious victim rescued with an airway still sealed from laryngospasm stands a good chance of a full recovery. Artificial respiration is also much more effective without water in the lungs. At this point the victim stands a good chance of recovery if attended to within minutes. Latent hypoxia is a special condition leading to unconsciousness where the partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs under pressure at the bottom of a deep free-dive is adequate to support consciousness but drops below the blackout threshold as the water pressure decreases on the ascent, usually close to the surface as the pressure approaches normal atmospheric pressure. A blackout on ascent like this is called a deep water blackout.

Cardiac arrest and death

The brain cannot survive long without oxygen and the continued lack of oxygen in the blood combined with the cardiac arrest will lead to the deterioration of brain cells causing first brain damage and eventually brain death from which recovery is generally considered impossible. A lack of oxygen or chemical changes in the lungs may cause the heart to stop beating; this cardiac arrest stops the flow of blood and thus stops the transport of oxygen to the brain. Cardiac arrest used to be the traditional point of death but at this point there is still a chance of recovery. The brain will die after approximately six minutes without oxygen but special conditions may prolong this (see 'cold water drowning' below). Freshwater contains less salt than blood and will therefore be absorbed into the blood stream by osmosis. In animal experiments this was shown to change the blood chemistry and led to cardiac arrest in 2 to 3 minutes. Sea water is much saltier than blood. Through osmosis water will leave the blood stream and enter the lungs thickening the blood. In animal experiments the thicker blood requires more work from the heart leading to cardiac arrest in 8 to 10 minutes. However, autopsies on human drowning victims show no indications of these effects and there appears to be little difference between drownings in salt water and fresh water. After death, rigor mortis will set in and remains for about two days, depending on many factors including water temperature.

Secondary drowning

Water, regardless of its salt content, will damage the inside surface of the lung, collapse the alveoli and cause pulmonary edema with a reduced ability to exchange air. This may cause death up to 72 hours after a near drowning incident. This is called secondary drowning. Inhaling certain poisonous vapors or gases will have a similar effect.

Freshwater can be more dangerous than saltwater in secondary drowning. When fresh water enters the lungs it is pulled into the pulmonary circulation via the alveoli because of the low capillary hydrostatic pressure and high colloid osmotic pressure. Consequently, the plasma is diluted and the hypotonic environment causes red blood cells to burst (hemolysis). The resulting elevation of plasma K+ level and depression of Na+ level, due to the hemolysis, alter the electrical activity of the heart. Ventricular fibrilation often occurs as a result of these electrolyte changes. Additionally, if drowning occurs in very cold water ( <10o C), the uptake of cold water into the vascular system can stop the heart. In open heart surgery, the technique of pouring cold saline solution over the heart is used to slow down enzymes in destroying the cells of the heart. If the victim is resuscitated death can occur hours later due to renal failure. During hemolysis, hemoglobin is also released into the plasma which can accumulate in the kidneys leading to acute renal failure. In contrast, salt-water drowning does not lead to uptake of inspired water into the vascular system because it is hypertonic to blood. Therefore, no hemolysis occurs and the cause of death is asphyxia.


Many pools and designated bathing areas either have lifeguards, a pool safety camera system for local or remote monitoring, or computer aided drowning detection. However, bystanders play an important role in drowning detection and either intervention or the notification of authorities by phone or alarm. No person should attempt a rescue that is beyond his or her ability or level of training.

If a drowning occurs or a swimmer goes missing, bystanders should immediately call for help. The lifeguard should be called if present. If not, emergency medical services and paramedics should be contacted as soon as possible.

The first step in rescuing a drowning victim is to ensure your own safety. Then bring the victim's mouth and nose above the water surface. For further treatment it is advisable to remove the victim from the water. Conscious victims may panic and thus hinder rescue efforts. Often, a victim will cling to the rescuer and try to pull himself out of the water, submerging the rescuer in the process. To avoid this, it is recommended that the rescuer approach the panicking victim with a buoyant object, or from behind, twisting the victim's arm on the back to restrict movement. If the victim pushes the rescuer under water, the rescuer should dive downwards to escape the victim.

Actively drowning victims do not usually call out for help simply because they lack the air to do so. It is necessary to breathe to yell. Human physiology does not allow the body to waste any air when starving for it. They rarely raise their hands out of the water. They use the surface of the water to push themselves up in an attempt to get their mouths out of the water. Lifting arms out of the water always pushes the head down. Head low in the water, occasionally bobbing up and down is another common sign of active drowning.

There can be splashing involved during drowning, usually a butterfly like stroke where the hands barely clear the waters surface, and sometimes victims can look like they are climbing an invisible ladder in the water.

Extenuating factors such as increased levels of stress, secondary injuries, and environmental factors can increase the likelihood of distress and/or drowning in persons who end up overboard. It is important that you recognize the behaviors associated with aquatic distress and drowning, so you can make informed decisions during emergencies.

Signs or behaviors associated with drowning or near-drowning:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes open, with fear evident on the face
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back to float
  • Uncontrollable movement of arms and legs, rarely out of the water.

After successfully approaching the victim, negatively buoyant objects such as a weight belt are removed. The priority is then to transport the victim to the water's edge in preparation for removal from the water. The victim is turned on his or her back. A secure grip is used to tow panicking victims from behind, with both rescuer and victim lying on their backs, and the rescuer swimming a breaststroke kick. A cooperative victim may be towed in a similar fashion held at the armpits, and the victim may assist with a breaststroke kick. An unconscious victim may be pulled in a similar fashion held at the chin and cheeks, ensuring that the mouth and nose are well above the water.

There is also the option of pushing a cooperative victim lying on his or her back with the rescuer swimming on his or her belly and pushing the feet of the victim, or both victim and rescuer lying on the belly, with the victim hanging from the shoulders of the rescuers. This has the advantage that the rescuer can use both arms and legs to swim breaststroke, but if the victim pushes his or her head above the water, the rescuer may get pushed down. This method is often used to retrieve tired swimmers. If the victim wears lifejacket, buoyancy compensator, or other flotation device that stabilizes his or her position with the face up, only one hand of the rescuer is needed to pull the victim, and the other hand may provide forward movement or may help in rescue breathing while swimming, using for example a snorkel.

Special care has to be taken for victims with suspected spinal injuries, and a back board (spinal board) may be needed for the rescue. In water, CPR is ineffective, and the goal should be to bring the victim to a stable ground quickly and then to start CPR.

If the approach to a stable ground includes the edge of a pool without steps or the edge of a boat, special techniques have been developed for moving the victim over the obstacle. For pools, the rescuer stands outside, holds the victim by his or her hands, with the victim's back to the edge. The rescuer then dips the victim into the water quickly to achieve an upward speed of the body, aiding with the lifting of the body over the edge. Lifting a victim over the side of a boat may require more than one person. Special techniques are also used by the coast guard and military for helicopter rescues.

After reaching dry ground, all victims should be referred to medical assistance, especially if unconscious or if even small amounts of water have entered the lungs. An unconscious victim may need artificial respiration or CPR. If this is the case, it is recommended that the patient be positioned on their back with the head level to the body. The goal should be to perform chest compressions if the patient is pulseless, and if the patient isn't breathing to push air into the lungs even though the lungs may be filled with some amount of water.[6]

The Heimlich maneuver is not recommended;[7] the technique may have relevance in situations where airways are obstructed by solids but not fluids. Performing the manoeuver on drowning victims not only delays ventilation but may induce vomiting, which if aspirated will place the patient in a far worse situation. Moreover, the use of the Heimlich manoeuver in any choking situation involving solids or fluids has become controversial and is generally no longer taught. For more information on this debate refer to the article Henry Heimlich.

100% oxygen is neither recommended nor discouraged[8]. Treatment for hypothermia may also be necessary. Water in the stomach need not be removed, except in the case of paediatric drownings, as a gastric distension can limit movement of the lungs. Other injuries should also be treated (see first aid). Victims that are alert, awake, and intact have a nearly 100% survival rate.

Drowning victims should be treated even if they have been submerged for a long time. The rule "no patient should be pronounced dead until warm and dead" applies. Children in particular have a good chance of survival in water up to 3 minutes, or 10 minutes in cold water (10 to 15 °C or 50 to 60 °F). Submersion in cold water can slow the metabolism drastically. There are rare but documented cases of survivable submersion for extreme lengths of time. In one case a child named Michelle Funk survived drowning after being submerged in cold water for 70 minutes. In another, an 18 year old man survived 38 minutes under water. This is known as cold water drowning.


Children have drowned in buckets and toilets

The reduction of drowning through education and basic prevention steps has become a necessity. Training information can be found through the following organizations: Star Fish Aquatics, Jeff Ellis and Associates, through the local chapter of then American Red Cross and many local organizations.

In order to avoid drowning, emphasis should be made in the following areas:


Practices to be considered:

  • Keep a watch out for others.
  • Keep children under full view.
  • Swim only in areas where adequate supervision is present (i.e. a trained and certified Lifeguard).
  • Have a locked fence around swimming pools.
  • Bring a cordless telephone to the pool, so children are not left unsupervised while answering a phone call.
  • Have cold-acclimatisation training prior to swimming in very cold waters.
  • Ensure that boats that are in use are reliable, properly loaded and that functional emergency equipment is onboard.
  • Wear a properly fitting lifejacket while enjoying water sports such as sailing, surfing or canoeing.
  • Pay attention to the weather, tides and water conditions, and especially currents. Currents are usually perceived from the outside as weaker than they actually are.
  • Be aware of your personal limits.

Practices to be avoided:

  • Diving into water where the bottom cannot clearly be seen or the depth determined.
  • Swimming alone.
  • Swimming at night.
  • Swimming while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Using hyperventilation in an attempt to extend a breath-hold dive. See deep and shallow water blackout.
  • Relying wholly on swimming aids, as they may fail.
  • Playing games that will put your life, or others', at risk.
  • Walking on ice, unless it is known in absolute certainty that the ice is thick enough over the entire route.


Disability-adjusted life year for drowning per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004.[9]
     no data      less than 100      100-150      150-200      200-250      250-300      300-350      350-400      400-450      450-500      500-600      600-700      more than 700

Victims are more likely to be male, young or adolescent.[3] Surveys indicate that 10% of children under 5 have experienced a situation with a high risk of drowning. The causes of drowning cases in the US from 1999 to 2006 are as follows[10]:

31.0% Drowning and submersion while in natural water
27.9% Unspecified drowning and submersion
14.5% Drowning and submersion while in swimming pool
9.4% Drowning and submersion while in bathtub
7.2% Drowning and submersion following fall into natural water
6.3% Other specified drowning and submersion
2.9% Drowning and submersion following fall into swimming pool
0.9% Drowning and submersion following fall into bathtub

Society and culture

As a method of execution

In Europe, drowning was used as capital punishment. In fact, during the Middle Ages, a sentence of death was read using the words "cum fossa et furca," or "with drowning-pit and gallows." Furthermore, drowning was used as a way to determine if a woman was a witch. The idea was that witch would float and innocent women would drown. For more details, see trial by drowning. It is understood that drowning was used as the least brutal form of execution, and was therefore reserved primarily for women, although favorable men were executed in this way as well.

Drowning survived as a method of execution in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries. England had abolished the practice by 1623, Scotland by 1685, Switzerland in 1652, Austria in 1776, Iceland in 1777, and Russia by the beginning of the 1800s. France revived the practice during the French Revolution (1789–1799) and was carried out by Jean-Baptiste Carrier at Nantes.[11]

See also

Vasily Perov: The drowned, 1867


  1. ^ a b Lunetta, P. & Modell, J.H. (2005): Macropathological, Microscopical, and Laboratory Findings in Drowning Victims. In: Tsokos, M. (ed.): Forensic Pathology Reviews, Vol. 3. Humana Pres Inc.; Totowa, NJ, pp.: 4-77.
  2. ^ Dueker CW, Brown SD (eds) (1999). "Near Drowning Workshop. 47th Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop". UHMS Publication Number WA292. (Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society): 63. http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/8024. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  3. ^ a b c Centers for Disease Control, Resources for TV Writers and Producers
  4. ^ Lundgren, Claus EG; Ferrigno, Massimo (eds). (1985). Physiology of Breath-hold Diving. 31st Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop.. UHMS Publication Number 72(WS-BH)4-15-87.. Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/7992. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  5. ^ Mackensen GB, McDonagh DL, Warner DS (March 2009). "Perioperative hypothermia: use and therapeutic implications". J. Neurotrauma 26 (3): 342–58. doi:10.1089/neu.2008.0596. PMID 19231924. 
  6. ^ "Statements on Positioning a Patient on a sloping Beach". International Life Saving Federation. http://www.ilsf.org/medical/statements/sloping-beach-positioning. Retrieved 2009-01-25. 
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ "2005 ILCOR resuscitation guidelines" (PDF). Circulation 112 (22 supplement). November 29, 2005. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.105.166480 (inactive 2008-06-28). http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/112/22_suppl/III-115.pdf. Retrieved 2008-02-17. "There is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of oxygen by the first aid provider.". 
  9. ^ "WHO Disease and injury country estimates". World Health Organization. 2009. http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/estimates_country/en/index.html. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2009. 
  10. ^ http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html
  11. ^ (web site) 1911 Encyclopedia: Drowning and life-saving. April 21, 2008. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Drowning_and_life_saving. Retrieved 2008-04-21. 

External links

Simple English

The drowned, 1867]]

Drowning means dying from not being able to breathe in air and breathing in water or another liquid. Near drowning is the survival of drowning where the person passes out or breathes in water, and can cause serious problems, including death, after the event. That means that near drowning can also need attention by doctors.

Secondary drowning is death caused by chemical or biological changes in the lungs after a near drowning incident.

In many countries, drowning is one of the biggest causes of death for children under 14 years old. Children have drowned in wading pools and even bath tubs. Many people drown in countries where there is a lot of water, especially if they swim in dangerous waters. For example, in the United Kingdom there are about 450 drownings each year (that is: 1 per 150,000 of its people), and in the United States there are about 6,500 drownings (or around 1 per 50,000 of its people). Drowning related injuries are the fifth most likely cause of accidental death in the US. In some places, drowning is the second most likely cause of injury and death for children. Victims are more likely to be male, young or teenage. Surveys say that 10% of children under 5 have been through a situation where they could have drowned.

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