Author: Wayne Wen Tao Kark / Editor: Adrian Boyle / Codes: Environmental / Published: 12/08/2011 / Review Date: 12/08/2014




Drowning was defined at the World Congress on Drowning in 2002:

Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) recorded 409,272 deaths from unintentional drowning worldwide in the year 2000 (excluding cataclysms, water and other transport accidents, assault and suicide). This is an accidental drowning rate of 6.8 per 100,000, making drowning the second highest cause of death from injury, after road traffic injuries.

Young children are particularly at risk of drowning, as they are unaware of dangers and are less able to escape from water once submerged. Even relatively small bodies of water (eg bathtubs, buckets) pose a risk. These cases are preventable by continuous supervision of young children, and preventing unintentional access to water (eg fencing around pools). Non-accidental injury should be considered in young children who drown at home or in shallow water2.

Amongst adults, men are more likely to drown because of increased exposure to water (occupational and leisure activities) and riskier behaviour (e.g. alcohol intoxication, drug use, swimming alone).

Physiological responses in drowning

Airway Protection

The usual response to submersion is a voluntary breath hold, to prevent aspiration of water. Voluntary apnoea results in progressive hypercapnia, acidosis and hypoxia which, together with feedback signals from the respiratory muscles, stimulates the respiratory centres and eventually forces the individual to take involuntary breaths.

Reflex laryngospasm may also occur, preventing further penetration of water into the lungs. The degree and duration of laryngospasm is highly variable. Prolonged hypoxia is usually associated with relaxation of the vocal cords and passage of some water into the lower airways, but tight laryngospasm can persist beyond cardiac arrest. The volume of fluid aspirated is usually small (<4mL/kg fluid) but results in significant hypoxia.

Diving Reflex

The mammalian diving reflex, seen predominantly in infants when the face contacts cold water, is thought to have a protective role. Apnoea, bradycardia and peripheral vasoconstriction occur. This reduces cardiac output (and myocardial oxygen demands) and conserves oxygen, while maintaining perfusion of the brain and vital organs. This helps prevent hypoxic damage during the early stages of submersion, and may account for improved survival rates following prolonged submersion in cold water in young children.

Cardiovascular Effects

The hydrostatic pressure of water on the body, when immersed, results in increased venous return and an increase in cardiac output. Loss of this pressure effect when exiting the water causes a sudden loss of peripheral resistance and venous pooling. This causes hypotension and circulatory collapse. Patients should be extricated from the water in a horizontal position, if possible, to counteract this effect.


Drowning injuries result from impaired lung function and gas exchange. This leads to hypoxia and acidosis, which causes secondary damage to other organs.

Respiratory complications

Submersion in water interrupts normal respiration, resulting in a progressive hypoxia, hypercapnia and acidosis. If prolonged, this may lead to loss of consciousness.

Aspiration of even small amounts (1-3mL/kg) of fluid significantly impairs gas exchange. Aspirated water dilutes and inactivates surfactant, making the alveoli prone to collapse. Atelectasis and reduced lung compliance produce a ventilation-perfusion mismatch

Aspirated water also causes direct lung injury, particularly if the water is contaminated (eg dirt, sand or gastric contents.) Damage to the alveolar basement membrane may result in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

Learning Bite

Small amounts of fluid inactivate surfactant and impair gas exchange

Fresh water and Salt water

Early work in animal models showed pathological differences between fresh and salt water aspiration. Systemic uptake of aspirated fresh water (hypotonic) caused haemodilution and hypervolaemia. In turn, haemodilution caused haemolysis and electrolyte disturbances which were thought to predispose to cardiac arrhythmias. In contrast, aspiration of salt water led to uptake of electrolytes and loss of protein rich serum into the hypertonic environment of the alveoli, causing pulmonary oedema and hypovolaemia.

It is unclear, however, whether these effects are clinically important. Recent studies show that, because of the relatively small volumes of aspiration seen in drowning cases, clinically significant fluid and electrolyte shifts are unlikely to occur. The management of fresh and salt water drowning is the same.

Learning Bite

There is no practically important difference in the way that fresh and salt water drowning cases should be managed

Cardiovascular complications

Cardiac ischaemia or arrhythmias may occur during drowning. Hypoxaemia combines with increased demands on the myocardium (increased cardiac output combined with increased systemic vascular resistance due to peripheral vasoconstriction). Volume and electrolyte disturbances may further contribute to cardiovascular instability


Pneumonia is a common complication in drowning victims, resulting from aspiration of water and contaminants during submersion, or secondary infection during recovery. These patients are often infected with unusual bacteria, such asAeromonas spp, Burkholderia pseudomalaei, Chromobacterium spp, Pseudomonas speciesand Leptospirosis.


Rapid onset hypothermia is protective. Several case reports show survival despite prolonged periods of submersion in ice cold water (over one hour). Hypothermia slows metabolism and reduces oxygen consumption; helping to reduce the inflammatory response. However, unless the onset of hypothermia is rapid, significant injury may develop before the body cools.

Effects of hypoxia and hypoperfusion

Asphyxia and aspiration cause hypoxaemia, while cardiovascular instability results in hypoperfusion of vital organs. This combination of hypoxia and hypoperfusion (ischaemia) results in metabolic acidosis and cell death. Neurological damage is usually the main problem in patients that survive drowning. However, damage is not limited to the brain. Myocardial infarction, rhabdomyolysis, acute tubular necrosis and DIC are common complications of drowning.

Associated injuries

There is a high incidence of associated injuries in victims of drowning. Head and cervical spine injuries are particularly common in patients rescued from shallow water.


Initial assessment should aim to identify respiratory compromise and other end-organ damage. Symptoms and signs of aspiration include dyspnoea, cough, retrosternal discomfort, tachypnoea and audible crackles on chest auscultation. Look for evidence of any precipitating causes (eg seizure, arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, stroke) and associated injuries (e.g. head or spinal injuries)

Investigations of victims of drowning should include:

  • Arterial blood gases (ABG) should be taken in all patients with a significant history of submersion. Low PaO2is an early indicator of aspiration. Patients may remain asymptomatic despite significant hypoxia and pulse oximetry may be inaccurate due to peripheral vasoconstriction.
  • CXR may show fluffy shadowing resulting from aspiration, atelectasis, or developing pulmonary oedema / ARDS
  • ECG and cardiac monitoring
  • Core temperature measurement using a low-reading thermometer. Consider continuous monitoring if hypothermic
  • Check electrolytes and BM
  • Consider blood culture in patients with significant aspiration, as this may be required to guide the choice of antibiotics if infection develops
  • Consider X-rays or CT-imaging where there is a suspicion of head, neck or spinal injuries.

Risk Stratification

Several attempts have been made to identify reliable prognostic indicators for victims of drowning. The aim is to distinguish, at presentation, patients who survive with little long-term disability from those who have established brain injury, or who are unlikely to survive. Many factors have been shown to be associated with a poor outcome examples include severe acidosis (pH<7), delayed CPR or prolonged cardiac arrest and GCS<5 on presentation. Unfortunately, none are reliable enough to influence management decisions when these patients present3. However, long Submersion time, increasing age, low Glasgow Coma Score (GCS), unreactive pupils and acute physiology and chronic health evaluation (APACHE II) and high glucose level at ICU admission are related to mortality4.

Learning Bite

There are no prognostic features that reliably predict a poor outcome after drowning



The initial management of drowning follows the ATLS principles of Airway with cervical spine control, Breathing andCirculation.


Spinal injury should be considered in all cases of drowning, especially in patients recovered from shallow water or those with evidence of head injury. Appropriate spinal precautions should be taken. Patients should be lifted out of the water in a horizontal position to prevent venous pooling and sudden cardiovascular collapse.

Airway and Breathing

Early, effective maintenance of airway and ventilation prevents cardiac arrest and improves neurological outcome. Attempting to drain water from the lungs is ineffective.

Significant hypoxia may develop without dyspnoea. High flow oxygen should be administered to all patients. Bronchospasm may be treated with nebulised bronchodilators. Falling PaO2 is a sign of developing ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and requires assisted ventilation. A trial of CPAP or BiPAP may be used in conscious, cooperative patients. Patients with significant respiratory compromise or altered GCS need early intubation and mechanical ventilation.

Patients who are asymptomatic and have no evidence of respiratory compromise (no CXR changes or hypoxia on ABG) after six hours can be safely discharged home. All symptomatic patients should be admitted for observation.

Ventilation strategies vary, but the aim is to maintain oxygenation while minimising ventilator associated lung injury. Inspired O2 concentration (FiO2) should ideally be maintained at <50%, as higher concentrations cause absorption atelectasis and a direct toxic effect on lung parenchyma. PEEP should be maintained at a minimum of 5cm H2O to prevent shear stress from the repeated opening and closing of alveoli. This can be increased to maximise oxygen delivery, as long as cardiac output is not compromised. Low tidal volume ventilation (6ml/kg) should be considered. There is currently insufficient evidence to support a target PaCO2.

A number of other experimental techniques have been suggested to improve ventilation. These include prone positioning, intratracheal administration of surfactant or perfluorochemicals and nitric oxide inhalation. Further studies are required. Studies have shown little benefit from steroids.

Learning Bite

Patients who are asymptomatic and have no evidence of respiratory compromise (no CXR changes or hypoxia on ABG) after six hours can be safely discharged home. All symptomatic patients should be admitted for observation.


The management of cardiac arrest follows ALS guidelines. Pulses may be difficult to feel in hypothermic patients. Hypovolaemia is the usual cause of shock in these patients, and may necessitate fluid resuscitation. Electrolyte disturbances, though uncommon, should be corrected.


Drowning injuries are often associated with hypothermia. Please see the module on hypothermia for a comprehensive account of this.


There is no good evidence to support the routine use of prophylactic antibiotics, but treatment should be initiated promptly if signs of infection develop. Antibiotic choice should ideally be guided by culture results.

Neurological complications

Brain injury results from hypoxia and ischaemia, so management focuses on maintaining oxygenation and cerebral perfusion. Secondary brain injury may be reduced by maintaining a therapeutic hypothermia (32-34 C) following cardiac arrest, controlling seizures promptly with benzodiazepines, and maintaining tight glycaemic control.

Raised intracranial pressure following drowning is a poor prognostic indicator. However, attempts at management of ICP or specific neuro-resuscitative pharmacological treatments (e.g. barbiturates, calcium channel antagonists, antioxidants) have shown little benefit in improving outcomes.


Safety pearls and Pitfalls

Key Learning Points

  • Patients should be extricated from the water in a horizontal position Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • The management of fresh and salt water drowning is the same Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • There are no prognostic features that reliably predict a poor outcome after drowning Level 4 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • The initial management of drowning follows the ATLS principles. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • The volume of fluid aspirated is usually small (<4mls/kg). Attempting to drain water from the lungs is ineffective. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Management of hypoxaemia and circulatory failure is key to the management of drowning. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Check an arterial blood gas on all patients with a history of submersion, as a surprising degree of hypoxia may be present in an asymptomatic individual. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Remember to look for evidence of precipitating causes and associated injuries, and manage appropriately. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Patients who are asymptomatic and have no evidence of respiratory compromise (no chest x-ray changes or hypoxia on ABG) after 6 hours can be safely discharged home. All symptomatic patients should be admitted for observation. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Pneumonia following drowning often involves unusual pathogens. Prophylactic antibiotics should not be routinely used. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation
  • Steroids have not been shown to be effective in drowning. Level 4 evidence Grade C recommendation
  • Consider child abuse in young children who are drowned in bath tubs, buckets or shallow water. Level 5 evidence Grade D recommendation



  1. van Beeck EF, Branche CM, Szpilman D, Modell JH, Bierens JJ. A new definition of drowning: towards documentation and prevention of a global public health problem. Bull World Health Organ 2005; 83(11):853-856.
  2. Salomez F, Vincent JL. Drowning: a review of epidemiology, pathophysiology, treatment and prevention. Resuscitation 2004; 63(3):261-268.
  3. Zuckerman GB, Gregory PM, Santos-Damiani SM. Predictors of death and neurologic impairment in pediatric submersion injuries. The Pediatric Risk of Mortality Score. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1998; 152(2):134-140.
  4. Ballesteros MA, Gutierrez-Cuadra M, Munoz P, Minambres E. Prognostic factors and outcome after drowning in an adult population. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand 2009; 53(7):935-940.

Leave a Reply