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Drowning is death by asphyxia due to suffocation caused by water entering the lungs and preventing the absorption of oxygen, leading to cerebral hypoxia.


People drowning fall into 3 categories:


  • Passive Drowning- people who suddenly sink due to a change in their circumstances such a loss of consciousness or sudden onset of a medical condition such as cardiac, alcohol, stroke, epilepsy, hypothermia.
  • Active Drowning-people such as non-swimmers and the exhausted
  • Secondary Drowning-Inhaled fluid (usually only a small quantity) can act as an irritant in the lungs. This process of events could be delayed for up to several hours , so a person who may have been rescued , resuscitated and recovered might relapse with severe breathing difficulties.


Evidence has identified that a person who drowns does not necessarily inhale large amounts of water into the lungs. In fact 90% of deaths from drowning are the result of relatively small amount of water. Inebriates or those under the influence of drugs have died in puddles.


If water enters the airways of a conscious victim they will try to cough it up or swallow it but some also enters the airways involuntarily. This causes laryngospasm preventing any water from entering the lungs. Unfortunately this can also inhibit air entering the lungs too and the victim can become unconscious. The laryngospasm then relaxes and water can enter the lungs causing WET DROWNING. In about 10% the seal caused by laryngospasm remains but then cardiac arrest occurs and this is called DRY DROWNING.


All patients should be taken to hospital.


Signs & Symptoms:


  • Patient is unconscious (U) on the AVPU score
  • Not breathing normally
  • No signs of life




  • Do not put yourself at risk. Remember 'Reach or Throw – Don't GO'.
  • Where possible keep the patient horizontal during rescue.
  • Check Airway and breathing. if in doubt start CPR.
  • Dial 999 even if the person recovers.



  • Never enter the water unless you are trained to do so.
  • Try to reach them with a rope of branch or throw them an object that can float or buoyancy aid.
  • Remember 'Reach or Throw – do not GO'.



First Response. Training for life. Training to save a life.

Read 9479 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
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Cheryl Crichton

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