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Health Information Center

Nonfatal Drowning

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Nonfatal Drowning

(Drowning; Submersion Incident)


Nonfatal drowning is when a person has almost drowned from not being able to breathe due to being under a liquid, such as water.


Drowning is caused by a liquid filling the lungs and blocking normal breathing.

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of a drowning event are:

  • Having health problems, such as seizure disorder, fainting, and heart problems
  • The use of drugs or alcohol before the event
  • Trauma, such as unsafe diving
  • Attempting suicide
  • Not knowing how to swim or being very tired from swimming

Drowning is more common in children 1 to 3 years of age and boys age 15 to 19 years. Things that raise the risk in children are:

  • A lack of supervision around water
  • Rough play around water
  • Not knowing how to swim or being very tired from swimming
  • Underwater breath holding


Symptoms of nonfatal drowning may be:

  • Drowsiness
  • Being less alert
  • Not being able to breathe
  • Gasping for air
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Blue skin color
  • Stopped heartbeat and breathing


A physical exam will be done. Nonfatal drowning is diagnosed based on events and symptoms.

Brain Damage from Lack of Oxygen.

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The first goal of treatment is to restore breathing as soon as possible. This may be done with:

  • CPR—to provide oxygen rich air to the body
  • Endotracheal intubation—to open the airway using a tube placed in the windpipe

Warming treatments may be given to raise the body of people who may have been in very cold water.

Medicine may be given to lower the risk of infection in people who were exposed to liquids that may be dirty, such as sewage.

Nasogastric (purple) and Endotracheal Intubation.

FI00035_96472_1_Endotracheal and Nasogastric Tube Insertionhttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=65036503FI00035_96472_1_Endotracheal and Nasogastric Tube Insertion.jpgEndotracheal and Nasogastric Tube InsertionNULLjpgFI00035_96472_1_Endotracheal and Nasogastric Tube InsertionNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\FI00035_96472_1_Endotracheal and Nasogastric Tube Insertion.jpgNULL70NULL2007-05-01257400Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


To lower the risk of drowning:

  • Do not leave children alone with any body of water, such as a pool, bathtub, or spa. Stay within arm's length of infants and toddlers at all times.
  • Do not allow anyone of any age to swim alone.
  • Secure pools and spas with childproof fences and locking gates.
  • Teach children how to swim.
  • Wear life vests when boating.
  • Body parts and hair can be trapped in pool drains. Be sure that the pool has drain covers or a filter system to release the suction.
  • Teach children to stay away from ice that is not fully frozen.




  • Drowning prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/drowning/index.html.
  • Near-drowning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/near-drowning.


  • Mark S. Itzkowitz, MD, JD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.