Drowning

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

What is drowning and what are the statistics?

Comment on this

According to the World Health Organization, "Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid." The possible outcomes of drowning are classified as death, morbidity (the development of disability or injury), and no morbidity.

This simple definition was agreed upon at the 2002 World Congress of Drowning held in Amsterdam. Prior to that meeting, some definitions and classifications of drowning were not necessarily well defined, and their meanings were subject to a variety of interpretations by different countries and health organizations. While some people still try to sort drowning events into categories (for example wet vs. dry, primary vs. secondary, fatal vs. non-fatal), these terms may or may not adequately describe a patient's situation, the effects of drowning on their body, or the potential outcome.

Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. According to the World Health Organization, more than 350,000 people die every year from drowning. This number significantly underestimates the actual number because they do not include those who drown in floods, boating, or water transport accidents. Almost half of all drowning in the world occur in China and India.

The death rate from drowning does not reflect the potential morbidity (disability) due to brain injury for those who survive a drowning episode. Most countries do not keep non-fatal drowning statistics.

What happens during drowning?

Comment on this

Drowning occurs when water comes into contact with the larynx (voice box).

  • After an initial gasp, there is a period of voluntary breath holding.
  • This is followed by spasm of the larynx and the development of hypoxemia (hypo=low + ox=oxygen + emia=blood), or decreased levels of oxygen in the bloodstream.
  • Lack of oxygen causes aerobic metabolism to stop, and the body becomes acidotic. If not corrected quickly, the lack of oxygen in combination with too much acid may lead to problems with the electrical conduction system of the heart (cardiac arrest) and lack of blood supply to the brain.
  • As body function declines, aspiration may occur as the larynx relaxes allowing water to enter the lungs. However, up to 20% of drowning victims have persistent spasm of the larynx, and no water is aspirated (this was formerly known as "dry" drowning).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/3/2014

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Drowning - Treatment Question: If you know someone who drowned or nearly drowned, what type of emergency treatment was used?
Drowning - Prevention Question: Do you and your family know how to swim? Are you trained in CPR? Please share your experience.
Drowning - What Happens Question: If you had a near drowning experience, please describe what happened and how it felt.
Drowning - Risk Factors Question: Do you know someone who drowned or nearly drowned? What were her/his risk factors (age, medical condition, etc.)?
Drowning - Water Safety Question: Do you have a pool? Please share suggestions for water safety and how you try to prevent drownings.
Can you really drown by swimming right after eating? Read more to find out.

Debunking Summer Health Myths

As children, most of us heard lots of health advice. Unfortunately, some of it, however well-intentioned, was medically incorrect. See if you've ever heard - or believed - any of these common summer health myths.

  1. "Wait a half hour after eating before you can safely go swimming." This one seemed almost universally accepted when I was a child and is still believed today. The myth involves the possibility of suffering severe muscle cramping and drowning from swimming on a full stomach. While it's true that the digestive process does divert the circulation of the blood toward the gut and to a certain extent, away from the muscles, the fact is that an episode of drowning caused by swimming on a full stomach has never been documented....

STAY INFORMED

Get the Latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!