What is near-drowning?

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

Most people who nearly drown are young children, but drowning accidents can happen to anyone of any age.

Near-drowning occurs when you’re unable to breathe under water for a significant period of time. During near-drowning, your body is cut off from oxygen to the point where major body systems can begin to 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’s important to remember that it’s possible to revive a person who has been underwater for a long time.

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
  • leaving babies unattended, even for a short period of time, in bath tubs
  • falling through thin ice
  • alcohol consumption while swimming or on a boat
  • concussion, seizure, or heart attack while in water
  • suicide attempt

It’s a misconception that you’re safe if you’re larger than a body of water. You can drown in just a couple of inches of water.

Someone who has nearly drowned may be unresponsive. Other symptoms include:

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

Near-drowning most often occurs when no lifeguard or medical professional is present. You may attempt to rescue the person from water, but only if it’s safe for you to do so. Tips for helping someone who is drowning include:

  • Use safety objects, such as life rings and throw ropes, to help the victim if they’re still conscious.
  • You should only enter the water to save an unconscious person if you have the swimming skills to safely do so.
  • It’s important to start rescue breathing as soon as possible if the person has stopped breathing. CPR involves giving oxygen to the person through mouth-to-mouth movements. Chest compressions are equally important, because they help increase oxygen flow through the blood to prevent fatal complications.
  • Be very careful when handling the person and performing CPR, as the individual could have a neck or spinal injury. Do not move or turn their neck or head. Stabilize the neck by manually holding the head and neck in place or placing towels or other objects around the neck to support it.
  • If the person has near-drowned in cold water, remove their wet clothes and cover them in warm blankets or clothing to prevent hypothermia. Be careful to support the neck while removing clothing.

If two or more people are present with the victim, one should start CPR, while the other calls 911. If only one person is present with the victim, CPR should be done for one minute before calling 911.

Resuscitation may still be possible even if someone has been underwater for quite some time.

Near-drowning is not always fatal, but it can lead to health complications. For the best chances of recovery, seek help immediately.

Near-drowning can cause complications depending on how long a person is deprived oxygen. Complications may include:

  • pneumonia
  • acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • brain damage
  • chemical and fluid imbalances in the body
  • a permanent vegetative state

Most people survive near-drowning after 24 hours of the initial incident.

Even if a person has been under water for a long time, it may still be possible to resuscitate them. Do not make a judgment call based on time. Call 911 and perform CPR. You may save a life.

Thousands of near-drowning cases occur each year. Many are preventable accidents. To stay safe around 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.

Prevention in children

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury related death in children 1-4 years old. Preventing near-drowning in children requires extra precautions. Here are some safety measures:

  • 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 kiddie pools and turn them over after each use (to prevent rain water from collecting).
  • 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).

Take CPR classes

Learning CPR could save a loved one’s life. Take a CPR workshop or watch a training video. The American Red Cross has information on classes as well as instructional videos on their website. Keep in mind that CPR can help facilitate breathing, but it shouldn’t be used in place of emergency medical help.