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(Near-Drowning; Submersion Incident)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Drowning occurs when normal air exchange in the lungs is prevented. This can happen when a person's nose and mouth are under the surface of a liquid, or when a person's face comes in contact liquid.


Drowning is caused by breathing problems because of liquid, such as water. At first, the person will hold his or her breath. Eventually, the person will no longer be able to hold it. The liquid will flow into the lungs. This liquid will not allow the normal gas exchange in the lungs to happen.

Risk Factors

Risk factors that increase your chances of drowning include:

  • Use of drugs or alcohol prior to incident
  • Not knowing how to swim
  • Horseplay or unsafe diving resulting in trauma
  • Risk-taking behavior around pools or other bodies of water
  • Being in a body of water and having a prior medical condition, such as seizures, fainting, cardiac conditions, or hypoglycemia.

Children are most often the victims of drowning. The following factors increase a child’s risk of drowning:

  • Not knowing how to swim
  • Having an unfenced pool or spa in the home
  • Among children less than one year old, the most common risk factor for drowning is being left in a bathtub unattended, even for a few minutes


Symptoms of drowning may include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Being unconscious
  • Inability to breathe
  • Gasping for breath
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Blue skin due to lack of oxygen

In some people, breathing problems may not happen until several hours after a drowning accident.


Your doctor will diagnose a drowning injury based on the events and the person's symptoms. A physical exam will be done.

Your doctor may need pictures of your body structures. This can be done with:

Your doctor may need to test your body's oxygen levels. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Oximetry

Brain Damage from Lack of Oxygen

Brain Damage Oxygen
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Treatment will depend on how bad the drowning episode damaged the body. Treatment options include:

CPR is done to provide oxygen rich air to the vital organs of the body. This may involve giving rescue breaths or doing chest compressions. In all unconscious people and those who have been diving, the head and neck should be supported in case of injuries to the spine.

This is done if the body's temperature dropped after being in cold water. Warming treatments are done slowly to avoid further injury to the body.

A narrow tube is placed into the large airways of the lungs to allow mechanical ventilation.

Nasogastric (purple) and Endotracheal Intubation

FI00035_96472_1_Endotracheal and Nasogastric Tube Insertion
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

This is a narrow, flexible, plastic tube that is placed through the nose into the stomach. People with drowning injuries may have swallowed a lot of water.


To help reduce chances that that you or someone you know will drown, take the following steps:

  • Never leave children alone with any body of water such as a pool, bathtub, or spa. Drowning can occur within moments.
  • Have your child take swimming lessons. Remember that even a child who knows how to swim is still at risk for drowning and will need constant supervision.
  • A fence or barrier should completely enclose your pool or spa. All gates or doors leading from the house to the pool area should have a self-closing, self-latching gate. It should be above the reach of toddlers and young children. You may want to get a pool alarm or rigid pool cover in addition to the fence and gates.
  • If you use a lightweight, floating pool cover, be extra alert to the potential for drowning accidents. These covers do not keep people from falling in. No one should ever crawl or walk on them.
  • Remove any obstacles to allow a full view of the pool or spa from the house.
  • Body parts and hair can be trapped in pool drains. Be sure that the pool has drain covers or a filter system to release the suction.
  • Ensure careful supervision of all guests if alcoholic beverages are served at a spa or pool.
  • When swimming in open water, choose an area where there is a lifeguard.
  • Always wear life vests when boating.
  • There is a risk of drowning during the wintertime. Warn children and others about the danger of walking or skating on thin ice.
  • Do not allow anyone of any age to swim alone. A supervising adult should be within arm's length of infants and toddlers who are swimming. The adult should know how to swim, be able to rescue someone, and do CPR.

American Academy of Pediatrics


American Red Cross



Canadian Paediatric Society


Canadian Red Cross



Driscoll TR, Harrison JA, et al. Review of the role of alcohol in drowning associated with recreational aquatic activity. Inj Prev. 2004;10(2):107-113.

Drowning and near-drowning in children and adolescents: a succinct review for emergency physicians and nurses. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2005;21(9):617-619.

Harries M. Near drowning. BMJ. 2003;327(7427):1336-1338.

Near-drowning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated March 8, 2013. Accessed May 30, 2013.

Salomez F, Vincent JL. Drowning: a review of epidemiology, pathophysiology, treatment, and prevention. Resuscitation. 2004;63(3):261-268.

Sibert J, John N, et al. Drowning of babies in bath seats: do they provide false reassurance? Child Care Health Dev. 2005;31(3):255-259.

Szpilman D, Bierens JJ, et al. Drowning. N Engl J Med. 2012 ; 366(22):2102-2110.

5/28/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. Policy statement—prevention of drowning. Pediatrics. 2010 May 24. [Epub ahead of print]

Last reviewed May 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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