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Near-Drowning Injuries

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

What are near-drowning injuries?

Near-drowning injuries occur when a person has been unable to breathe after being under water. Liquid enters the lungs and prevents the person from getting enough oxygen. Alcohol or drug use while boating or swimming increase the risk of a near-drowning injury. Medical problems such as seizures, muscle cramps, or hypoglycemia while swimming may also increase risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of near-drowning injuries?

  • Swollen abdomen, nausea, or vomiting
  • Bluish skin
  • Confusion, trouble thinking or remembering, or loss of consciousness
  • Coughing, increased breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing
  • Fast or slow heartbeat
  • Weak or absent pulse

What health problems can near-drowning injuries cause?

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a sudden and very serious condition that occurs when the lungs swell and fill with liquid. This condition causes severe shortness of breath and may lead to respiratory failure. Respiratory failure means the person cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of his or her body.
  • Brain edema is swelling caused by fluid buildup. It may be caused by brain cell damage that occurs from a lack of oxygen for a long period.
  • Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when the body temperature drops too low for a long period of time. Organ failure may develop and cause death.
  • Pneumonia is a lung infection that may occur after a near-drowning.

How are near-drowning injuries diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will do a physical exam. The provider will also ask how the near-drowning injury happened and how long the person was under water. The following tests may also be done:

  • Arterial blood gases (ABG) show oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Blood is taken from a vein in the wrist, arm, or groin.
  • Blood and urine tests can get information about the person's overall health.
  • An EEG , or electroencephalogram, shows the electrical activity of the brain. Small pads or metal discs are put on the head. Each has a wire that is hooked to a machine. This machine prints a paper tracing of brain wave activity from different parts of the brain.
  • A chest x-ray may show lung problems, such as pneumonia, collapsed lungs, or ARDS.
  • A CT scan may show brain edema. The person may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell the healthcare provider if the person has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

How are near-drowning injuries treated?

Lay person cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) must be done as soon as possible. CPR is used when a person stops breathing and his or her heart has stopped beating. Lay person refers to anyone who is not a trained healthcare worker. After CPR has been done, the person must be taken to an emergency department. The person may also need any of the following:

  • Oxygen may be given if the person's blood oxygen level is lower than it should be. The person may get oxygen through a mask placed over his or her nose and mouth or through small tubes placed in the nostrils. Ask before you take off the mask or oxygen tubing.
  • An endotracheal tube (ET) may be placed into the person's windpipe to help keep his or her airway open and help him or her breathe. It may be connected to a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that provides oxygen and breathes for a person when he or she cannot breathe well on his or her own. The person will not be able to talk while the ET tube is in place.
  • Medicines may be given to prevent or treat a bacterial lung infection. Glucose may be given to raise blood sugar.

How can near-drowning injuries be prevented?

  • Avoid drinking alcohol while swimming or boating.
  • Do not try to hyperventilate to increase the time you are able to stay under water.
  • Learn CPR if you have a pool or regularly do water activities.
  • Never try to help rescue someone if you do not know how to do it safely.
  • Swim near a lifeguard, and ask for safe places to swim. Read and follow warning signs.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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