Near Drowning

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on July 27, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Near-Drowning?

Near-drowning is a term used to describe almost dying from suffocating under water. It is the last stage before actual drowning, which often results in death. Near-drowning victims still require medical attention to prevent related health complications.

According to a recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,700 people were hospitalized from near-drowning between 2005 and 2009 in the United States. Of these victims, 50 percent required additional medical care (CDC, 2012).

Most victims are young children, but drowning accidents can happen to anyone of any age.

Causes of Near-Drowning

Near-drowning occurs when you are unable to breathe under water for a significant period of time. During near-drowning, oxygen intake decreases and major body systems shut down from the lack of oxygen flow. In some cases (particularly in young children), this can happen in a matter of seconds. The process typically takes longer in adults.

It is important to remember that it is still possible to revive an individual who has been underwater for a long time. According to the National Institutes of Health, chances for resuscitation in this case is even better if the individual is young and/or was in very cold water (Heller and Zieve, 2011).

The majority of near-drowning cases are attributed to accidents that occur near or in the water. The most common causes of near-drowning include:

  • an inability to swim
  • panic in the water
  • leaving children unattended near bodies of water
  • falling through thin ice
  • alcohol consumption while swimming or on a boat
  • concussion or seizure while in water
  • suicide attempt

Symptoms of Someone Who Just Nearly Drowned

In cases of near-drowning, a victim might be unresponsive. Although this can happen in near-drowning cases, the condition can exhibit some other symptoms, such as:

  • cold or bluish skin
  • abdominal swelling
  • chest pain
  • cough
  • shortness or lack of breath
  • vomiting
  • unconsciousness

Treatment for Near-Drowning

Near-drowning most often occurs when there is no lifeguard or medical professional around. You may attempt to rescue the victim from water, but only if it is safe for you to do so. The NIH recommends using safety objects, such as life rings and throw ropes in an attempt to help the victim. However, if a victim is unresponsive, then he or she will not be able to grab onto any objects. At this point, you may consider entering the water yourself, but only if you have the swimming skills to safely complete the task.

Also, it is important to start rescue breathing as soon as possible if the victim has stopped breathing. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) involves giving oxygen to the victim through mouth-to-mouth movements. Chest compressions are equally important because they help increase oxygen flow through the blood to prevent fatal complications.

It is important to remember to be very careful when handling the individual and performing CPR, as he or she could have a neck or spinal injury. Do not move or turn the victim’s neck. Stabilize his or her neck by taping it to a stiff board (backboard) or placing towels or other objects around the neck to support it.

If the individual fell into cold water, remove his or her wet clothes and cover the victim with warm blankets or clothing (being careful not to move the neck) to prevent hypothermia.

Always call 911 before making a rescue attempt or performing CPR.

Learning CPR could save a loved one’s life. Consider taking a CPR workshop or at least watching a training video. The American Red Cross has information on classes as well as instructional videos on their Web site: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/hands-only-cpr

Even if an individual has been underwater for quite some time, resuscitation may still be possible.

Ways to Help Prevent Drowning and Near-Drowning Incidences

Thousands of near-drowning cases occur each year. Unfortunately, many of these happen from preventable accidents. To prevent accidents in adults make sure you:

  • avoid bodies of standing water
  • don’t drive on flooded roadways
  • don’t run around the edge of a pool
  • avoid drinking alcohol while swimming or boating
  • take a water safety class

You may also consider taking a CPR class to help rescued victims of near-drowning. Keep in mind that CPR can help facilitate breathing, but it shouldn’t be used in lieu of emergency medical help.

Preventing near-drowning in children requires extra precautions. Here are some safety measures to implement every day:

  • block child access to swimming areas
  • never leave toys in pools (this can entice a young child to retrieve the toy)
  • swim with young children at an arm’s length
  • never leave a child alone in a bathtub
  • keep children away from wells, creeks, canals, ponds, and streams
  • empty inflatable or plastic kid pools after each use and turn them over (as rain water can collect in them as well)
  • install alarms around doors and windows, especially if you have a pool or live near water
  • have rescue materials and a phone nearby when swimming
  • keep toilet bowl covers down (drowning can happen in an inch or less of water)

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control report, drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in American children ages 1 to 4 (CDC, 2012).

Misconceptions About Near-Drowning

Swimming lessons are ideal, especially for children ages one to four. However, even if your children can swim, this does not mean that they are immune to drowning accidents. Supervise young children at all times, and make sure that no child ever swims alone. Life jackets are safer for new swimmers to use than inflatable floatation devices.

There is also a misconception that you are safe if you are larger than a particular body of water. However, remember that you can drown in just a couple of inches of water.

Outlook for Someone Who Nearly Drowned

Near-drowning is not fatal like drowning accidents, but it can still lead to health complications.

Near-drowning most often causes lung complications, such as pneumonia and respiratory stress syndrome. Although a victim might seem to enter a recovery state after rescue from near-drowning, he or she may have already been exposed to the severe repercussions of a lack of oxygen flow within the body. Brain damage is another dangerous near-drowning related complication, and it can cause permanent vegetative states. Bodily injuries, as well as chemical and fluid imbalances may also occur.

Most victims survive near-drowning after 24 hours of the initial incident, but they can still die from related complications thereafter.

For the best chances of recovery, seek help immediately.

Even if an individual has been underwater for a long time, it may still be possible to resuscitate him or her. Do not make the judgment call of time. Call 911 and perform CPR. You may save a life.

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