Drowning - What Happens

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What happens during drowning?

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).
Return to Drowning (Dry, Wet, Near)

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Comment from: Phyl, 65-74 (Patient) Published: February 11

I suffered from near drowning when my husband attempted to rescue 2 swimmers in trouble. One of them pulled him under water twice. He threw her off of himself and she landed on me. She pulled me under 4 times. After wondering while under water what I was doing in this situation I didn't believe my time was up. After being pulled down for the 4th time I remembered something my mother told me over 30 years ago. A drowning person in his panic would try to drown you. You should grab her hair from behind. I was able to grab her long hair and go to the surface and ask for help. I ended up with aspiration pneumonia, a heart attack and in the ICU for 4 days plus 3 more days at the hospital. I had 60 percent water in my lungs and was in acute danger from aspiration pneumonia. Through a miracle I survived the pneumonia and heart attack. It is now 6 months later and I am still struggling physically, mentally and emotionally. I am 70 years old.

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