A little FYI on the bio-mechanics of drowning

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Maybe it’s due the ability that most of us have – to hold our breath for extended periods of time – that also causes most of us to imagine death by drowning to be less than sudden.  Providing a much larger, imaginary grace period, for saving a drowning victim’s life. Kind of like feeling confident you could put out a wastebasket fire, before it burned the house down. And so, as long as there is at least someone around – capable of administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – the danger of someone actually dying, might seem fairly remote.

The fact is, once they have aspirated water into their lungs, resuscitation efforts are rarely successful at saving a person’s life.   And that’s because death by drowning is not a result of asphyxiation.  It’s due to cardiac arrest.  The sudden, induced heart attack, brought on by the mechanism of reverse osmosis, that first allowed fresh water to cross the lung tissue boundary, and flood directly into the bloodstream.  With much the same ease that the lungs had been used to supplying oxygen.  Critical blood chemistry is irreversibly altered by this sudden dilution.  And, devoid of oxygen, this blood is pumped straight back to the waiting heart, on its return trip from the lungs.

Just like pouring water into the carburetor of a car will stop the engine – the amount of time this takes to stop the heart, is just one or two heartbeats.  At this point, the barest possibility for survival will depend less on mouth-to-mouth efforts to resuscitate, and more on Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).  To move the adulterated blood on through, and past, the stopped heart, while hopefully drawing in fresh, oxygenated blood, from the lungs.

It has been said you can “drown” on a teaspoon of water, which is why this is such a long shot.  Given the lungs ability to soak up water like a sponge, survival will depend almost entirely on how much water was taken into the lungs, before the victim was removed from the water.  And attempts made to clear the lungs and airways of excess water, before beginning CPR.   Sadly, it’s not at all uncommon for those who do manage to survive a near-drowning experience, to suffer the lifelong effects of brain damage.  Which is due to oxygen deprivation that – once the heart stops – can occur within minutes.

The take home message?

  • As an adult, around water, it’s important to realize you’re not likely to survive even one gasp for breath, that is met by water, instead of air.
  • As a parent, that there is little you can do to prevent the shocked gasp of a toddler, suddenly immersed in water.
  • That water can be more unforgiving and deadly, than you ever imagined.

The sad fact that most toddler drownings occur either in or immediately around the home – often within shouting distance of their parents or guardian – should be a heads up for us all.

Intermountain Primary Children’s Medical Center has listed water safety guidelines, in their online Water – Danger at any Depth resource.  It’s an invaluable guide. One that’s well worth the time and effort to acquaint – or simply reacquaint – ourselves, with the commonsense guidelines – and imperatives – that can undoubtedly save lives.


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