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What Happens to Your Body When You Drown?

by Erik McLaughlin, M.D., M.P.H.

life preserver storm clouds

You can only go a few seconds without oxygen before organ damage begins. The brain is typically the first affected. Here are the steps a body may go through when drowning.
  1. As a person realizes he might be drowning, there’s often a large amount of panic. This leads to rapid movements and expending a lot of energy, which consumes more oxygen.
  2. At the same time, if the person remains underwater, her body begins to accumulate carbon dioxide. This gas is what stimulates you to feel that need to breathe. Eventually, the victim involuntarily draws in breath.
  3. When water reaches the airway, the first response is to cough or swallow the water. This typically results in more water being ingested.
  4. As water contacts the lower airways, the throat spasms, trying to seal off the path to the lungs. With nowhere else to go, water frequently finds its way into the stomach.
  5. The throat relaxes after the person becomes unconscious. The relaxation allows water to flow into the lungs.
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This complex reaction can cause a variety of other problems as well. That’s one of many reasons most experts are beginning to use the term “water-immersion injury” to describe these problems, rather than “drowning” and “near drowning.”


ERIK MCLAUGHLIN, M.D., M.P.H.,
is a family-doctor resident in Chicago and former EMT/firefighter. He runs the travel health Web site www.AdventureHealthClinic.com.


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Last updated and/or approved: June 2010.
Original article appeared in July/August 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of July/August 2009. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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The day I drowned
written by Shirley Freitag , December 02, 2014

About 60 years ago I was having fun in whst I thought was a shallow part of lake.

Next thing I know I was underwater and I panicked . It felt like seconds and then the most
Peaceful and wonderful feeling came over me. Yes, there is a tunnel and bright light.

I came to on shore throwing up water.

All this I remember vividly, as if it just happened.

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Thank you
written by Neal Austinson , December 01, 2014

Thank you Olivia, I'm glad you survived to tell your story and continue on with life.
We just lost a loved one who drowned and I hope he didn't
suffer.

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drowning
written by amos , November 12, 2014

What causes the body of a drowned person to float above water after few days. Insted of the body going down.?
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when i all most ddrown
written by nadia khan , June 23, 2014

i nerle died i it was not for a dog that saved me and i was so scered
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I drowned in a hospital
written by Trish Dee , May 15, 2014

I had been in the hospital for some 32 days with an undiagnosed illness. An MRI with contrast had been scheduled and I woke up
remembering that I had started vomiting on the contrast and someone pushed me back when I leaned over to vomit on the floor.
I was told on awakening that I had "coded' on the contrast. After a while I was then told THAT I coded twice on the contrast. A tube
was down my throat when I awoke and, of course I lived to tell about it. But to drown like that I remember no pain, no fear, and awoke very tired.

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My Nephew Drowned
written by Sandra Alexander , February 04, 2014

My nephew drowned some years ago in Okinawa Japan while serving in the Marines. From my understanding he drowned while on a training mission. We the family was told that several other marines were with him and they tried to save him. I was never really comfortable with the story told. However, I almost went crazy just thinking about how he must have suffered. I realized I had to let it got in order to continue with my life.

I feel a little better hearing some of the stories.

Thank you!

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...
written by Naomi , January 10, 2014

My little cousin died drowned tree days before christmas. he was 2 and half. i came here to have an idea of what he went through...
its extremely terrific to die in such ways. thank you all

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I did drowned and come back for those who wonder
written by Olivia , December 10, 2013

In December of 2009 on Sunday the 13th to be exact I went scuba diving with some friends which was very usual for me. I have been a diver since I was 13 and am now 36 I can longer dive due to brain injures but at that time I was even a professional lifeguard to give you some clue into what kind of swimmer I am and was at that time; anyway leading up to that day my ex boyfriend called me and asked me to go diving that day with him because it was his first open water dive and he took the class because I was so passionate about diving so I agreed to go. That morning I remember we met at the dive shop and a large group drove a caravan farther south (in florida) and I felt fine like any other day when we got to the boat the instructor asked if I would stay with him and my ex and the new divers just for an extra person experienced in the group instead of going with the other divers who were going to a deeper spot but I agreed to help with the new bees. I remember being underwater nothing was wrong or off but the last thing I remember was looking at some coral then I was looking down at my body on the boat everyone freaking out and I had no idea that was me they were doing cpr on; the next thing I heard was a soft whisper that "it's" ok then a day or so later I woke up in ICU. Looking back I had no idea what happened and no one knew or EVER found out they just found me eyes opened no pulse full of water to the point they had to get water out of my lungs just to give me cpr' but the big point is it was like going to sleep for those of you parents who wonder I'm a mom and I can't imagine wondering if my kids suffered if something like that happened to them but for me it was peaceful and painless so please take my story and I hope it may give some type of peace.
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sand7906 sad grandma
written by diane , November 12, 2013

my 14yr old grandson drown this past june..his birthday was this oct.he would have been 15.he was in a lake which was in a park..he got his foot caught in something under the water an went down to grab his foot but the current of the water was so strong that it took him down..they found him in almost 20 feet of water.his good friend was there with him trying to help pull him out but wasn't stronge enough to help him.i miss him so much...would the current of the water pull him across the middle or bottom of the water have broken his neck or beaten his body..i know this sounds strange but when he was in the funeral home the first time i saw him his head was not placed right and his shoulders were not normal..the shoulder joints look huge..i know you swell up but do u stay swollen..the rest of his body wasn't swollen from what i could tell..yes i was upset but i still notice because i had to know what he look like
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...
written by Darlene Sanders , August 29, 2013

I would like to know if when a person drowns will there lung fill up with water my daughter was just found dead in lake lanier 4 weeks ago and they say she drown but never said if there was water in her lungs one person said there wasn't but the other one said there wasn't I need to know it driving me crazy because I need to know please help me understand this they said it was drowning on drinking and drugs she was 32 years old she could swim good but I know even the best swimming can drown I guess I just need to know thank you for helping me
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