Most people understand what drowning is. Drowning occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted or prevented because their airway is submerged or immersed in a liquid, such as water. But not all drownings are fatal. There is an emerging awareness of another type of drowning, one that doesn’t result in death, called non-fatal drowning.
DPRC (the Drowning Prevention Research Centre) and Lifesaving Society cite non-fatal to be 4-4.5 x that of fatal drowning in ON (based on emergency room visits and those reported). However, the number is likely higher as many non-fatal drownings go unreported.
National non-fatal drowning statistics are not yet available. DPRC will have national non-fatal drowning data available in 2024. These too will be based on emergency room visits and reported incidents. However, the number is likely higher as many go unreported.
When you breathe in water, your lungs are no longer able to supply a normal amount or any oxygen to your body. That reduction of oxygen quickly affects your organs, including your brain and heart. Even a little water your lungs can cause serious lung problems in the next hours or days. And when drowning accident victims survive, there can be long-term health effects and disabilities, like brain damage resulting in cognitive issues and compromised lungs, caused by the lack of oxygen that happened during the non-fatal drowning experience.
Research and the tracking of non-fatal drowning incidents is relatively new to the global public health system. Many countries are now starting to track and report non-fatal drowning incidents that required hospitalisation.
Non-fatal drowning rates are highest among children and youth; this differs from fatal drowning where rates are highest among adults. “Males accounted for approximately two-thirds of non-fatal drownings; this differs from fatal drowning where males account for close to 80%.
Young children lack balance and co-ordination and are at increased risk of falling into water if not supervised, or the person supervising them was distracted (e.g., out of arms reach, using their cell phone, reading a book, talking to someone, not in the room, etc.). Childrens’ lungs are smaller than adults’ and fill quickly with water. They can drown in as little as 2.5 centimetres (one inch) of water.
Older children may overestimate their own skills, underestimate the depth of the water or strength of the current, or respond to a dare from a friend.
Males are more likely to be hospitalized than females for non-fatal drowning. Studies suggest that the higher drowning rates among males are due to increased exposure to water and riskier behaviour such as swimming alone, drinking alcohol before swimming alone and boating.
You’ll want to keep a close eye on someone for 72 hours following a close call in the water in which you believe their breathing was affected by the water. Delayed symptoms of drowning include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing and/or chest discomfort. Extreme fatigue, irritability and behavior changes are also possible. 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.
What to Do
Remain vigilant and watch for signs and symptoms of drowning for 72 hours after the incident. If you notice any respiratory symptoms (including persistent cough) or unusual behavior, seek medical help right away. If symptoms are severe, call 911. Depending on the severity of the incident, treatment of drowning ranges from observation in the emergency department to supportive care in the ICU.
Children are at the highest risk of non-fatal drowning. When in, on or around water, children should always be actively supervised by an adult, regardless of the child’s age or ability. Consistent and uninterrupted, adult supervision means focusing all of your attention, all of the time, on children when they are in, on or around the water. Young children should stay within arms reach of a parent. If a young child is out of arms reach then they are too far away, including in the bathtub.
- Learn basic swimming and lifesaving skills.
- Build four-sided fences with a self-locking gate that enclose pools and prevent access.
- Follow the backyard pool checklist.
- Supervise children closely and watch out for your friends.
- Wear a lifejacket of PFD.
- Learn CPR.
- Know the risks of natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, rivers, oceans etc.) including drop-offs, RIP currents, etc.
- Avoid using alcohol or substances around water.
- Use the buddy system.
- Swim in lifeguard supervised areas (“between the flags”).
- Take additional precautions for medical conditions.
- Consider the effects of medications.
- Avoid hyperventilating and/or holding your breath underwater.
How Does a Drowning Get Interrupted
Drowning is interrupted when an individual is able to receive oxygen in their lungs. If you witness someone drowning, alert a lifeguard or call 911.