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Nonfatal Drowning

Overview

What is nonfatal drowning?

Drowning happens when a person is underwater and breathes water into the lungs. A drowning that doesn't result in death is often called a nonfatal drowning.

When a person drowns, the airway (larynx) can spasm and close, or water can damage the lungs and keep them from taking in oxygen. In either case, the lungs can't supply oxygen to the body. This can be deadly.

Going without oxygen has a rapid effect on the body.

  • Within 3 minutes underwater, most people lose consciousness.
  • Within 5 minutes underwater, the brain's oxygen supply starts to drop. A lack of oxygen can cause brain damage.

What happens after a person survives a drowning?

Right after a nonfatal drowning, a person may:

  • Be unconscious, unable to breathe, or without a heartbeat.
  • Gasp for air, cough up pink froth, vomit, or breathe rapidly.
  • Seem to be fine.

Even a little water in the lungs can cause serious lung problems in the next hours or days. Emergency medical care is critical after a person survives a drowning.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if a drowning victim has:

  • Lost consciousness.
  • Stopped breathing.
  • No heartbeat.
  • Inhaled water and then gasped for air, coughed up pink froth, vomited, or breathed rapidly.
  • Become confused or seems to be in an altered mental state.

Call a doctor now if a recent drowning victim has new breathing problems or signs of a lung infection, such as:

  • A cough with or without colored mucus.
  • Rapid breathing. Breaths may also be shallow.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • A fever.
  • An unusual level of weakness.
  • A whistling noise (wheezing) while breathing.
  • Tightness in the chest.

Related Information

Credits

Current as of: August 6, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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