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General Information

DEFINITION--The immediate aftereffects of prolonged submersion under water.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Lungs; blood; heart.

SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; all ages.


  • Confusion or unconsciousness.
  • Little or no breathing or heartbeat.
  • Bluish-white paleness.


    Submersion under water results in either:

  • Spasm of the larynx (the tube from the throat to the lungs). After rescue, this spasm prevents oxygen from reaching the lungs.
  • Water in the lungs, causing life-threatening changes in the circulating blood.

> Accidents--especially head injury--

    while swimming.

  • Poorly supervised children or inadequately fenced swimming pools.
  • Suicidal persons.

> Encourage all family members--including infants--

    to learn to swim.

  • Install a fence around your home swimming pool.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Don't drink alcohol and swim.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and physical exam by a doctor.
  • Laboratory blood tests.


  • Immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Hospitalization for observation for delayed, serious reactions.


  • Pulmonary edema (body fluid in the lungs).
  • Permanent brain damage.
  • Heart irregularities, including cardiac arrest and death.
  • Lung infection.
  • Fear of water.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--Depends on the length of time under water. With early rescue and treatment, full recovery is possible. Special body mechanisms may permit full recovery from near-drowning in icy water even after prolonged immersion.

How To Treat


  • If the victim is unconscious and not breathing, yell for help. Don't leave the victim.
  • Call 911 (emergency) for an ambulance or medical help (if the victim is a child, give 1 minute of CPR and then call 911).
  • Begin mouth-to-mouth breathing immediately.
  • If there is no heartbeat, give external cardiac massage.
  • Don't stop CPR until help arrives.
  • The near-drowning victim should be taken to the nearest hospital for intensive care even if the victim has regained consciousness. Complications or death may occur 24 to 48 hours after the accident due to heart-rhythm disturbances.
  • Remain with a recovering patient to provide support and reassurance. Near-drowning is a traumatic experience.

MEDICATION--The doctor may prescribe:

  • Oxygen.
  • Cortisone drugs to prevent or treat lung inflammation.
  • Antibiotics to prevent lung infection.
  • Bronchodilators to enable oxygen to enter the lungs.

ACTIVITY--Complete bed rest until activity is permitted by the doctor.

DIET--Intravenous nutrients, if the victim is unconscious upon hospitalization. After recovery, no special diet is necessary.

Call Your Doctor If

  • Someone appears to have drowned. Call for emergency help immediately! See General Measures for additional emergency information.
  • Signs of infection (fever, cough, muscle aches and fatigue) appear after apparent recovery.
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