Nonfatal Drowning (Submersion Injury)

An episode of nonfatal drowning is a frightening experience. This is true for both adults and children. After a brief nonfatal drowning experience, you can expect a full recovery with no lasting effects. But it's possible for new symptoms to appear in the first 12 to 24 hours.

It's important to watch out for breathing problems over the next several hours, and even until the next day. Things to watch for are:

  • Breathing fast

  • Repeated coughing

  • Wheezing

  • Blue coloring of lips and skin (cyanosis)

  • Trouble breathing

Home care

  • Rest at home for the next 24 hours.

  • Check breathing rate and temperature every 4 hours for the next 24 hours. (See warnings below.)

Prevention

  • Adults should not swim alone or drink alcohol before swimming.

  • All family members should learn how to swim to reduce the risk of drowning.

  • Children should wear Coast Guard approved life jackets whenever they are on, in, or near bodies of water

  • Never let children swim unless an adult is present to watch them.

  • Never leave children unattended, even for a few minutes such as. to "quickly" answer the phone. Use "touch supervision" whenever a child is near water, whether it's a swimming pool or bathtub. This means always being within an arm's length of the child. Most child drownings inside the home occur in bathtubs, usually when an adult is not paying attention.

  • Assign an adult "water watcher" to constantly keep an eye on the child in the water. This is especially important during parties or picnics at the pool or lake, when it's easy to get distracted. Set a "watch" time and take turns.

  • If you own a swimming pool, be sure a secure fence prevents children from entering without adult supervision. The fence should be at least 4 feet high, surround the pool on all sides, and have a self-closing, self-latching gate that opens away from the pool.

  • Remove any toys from the pool when the pool is not in use.

  • Don't let a young child use a bathroom without supervision.

  • Never leave a filled, open-top water container, bucket, or wading pool unattended. Completely empty these items when done. This includes ice chests.

  • Parents of young children should take a class in first aid or CPR so you are prepared for any future nonfatal drowning episodes.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. If X-rays or CT scan were done, they will be looked at by a radiologist. You will be told of the results, especially if it affects treatment.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing or wheezing

  • Hoarse voice or trouble speaking

  • Very confused

  • Very drowsy or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate or very slow heart rate

  • Vomiting blood

  • Seizure

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if you or your child has any of the following:

  • Repeated coughing

  • Fast breathing

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if your child is breathing fast and their breathing is:

  • Birth to 6 weeks: over 60 breaths per minute

  • For a child 6 weeks to 2 years old: over 45 breaths per minute

  • For a child 3 to 6 years old: over 35 breaths per minute

  • For a child 7 to 10 years old: over 30 breaths per minute

  • For a child older than 10 years: over 25 breaths per minute

© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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