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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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Thank You!
written by Megan C Bordenave , November 16, 2016

I want to thank all of you for sharing your experiences. About 4 years ago my Son's best friend fell into the Colorado River and drowned.
He was 23. His family grieved terribly about the agony of his struggle while drowning. We all thought it took a much longer time and were devestated as we had visions of him panicking for
at least 10 minutes! We had no idea that his death actually occurred so very fast, and that he felt peaceful so very fast. The guys who were with him ran frantically trying to save him for 8 miles until they collapsed, still to this day they have nightmares and feel guilty about not being able to save him and him struggling hearing them calling his name then thinking they gave up. Now I can tell them that it didn't happen that way! Taylor had probably died within 1-3 minutes as the Colorado River at the time was the highest and fastest it had been in over 38 years. Now I can assure these brave yet still guilt-ridden young men that he was already at peace alost immediately. They need to hear this.

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...
written by Susanne , October 06, 2015

In 2011 my granddaughter 7, my daughter who was 9 went to the lake. it wasn't a lake but a river and had recent flooding. My granddaughter was ankle deep in water looking at fish was now screaming for help I ran to her to pull her out and we both ended up being sucked under by her screams builders working on a house heard her screams. They fought the 8 mile an hour river current to rescue her. I had been pulled under I was pushing up my granddaughter. I felt her weight of her body leave mine. I recall being calm, peaceful, having a strange weightless floating feeling no cold no hot and it was very blue around me then every so often I snapped back to reality I could hear birds and feel the sun and water around me and as quick as that came it went and the peaceful feeling returned. I could hear voices in the distance it was a man who was holding me or the recue boat that pulled me from the river or just the chatter of the chaos but I felt the weight of my body. The peaceful feeling that I never felt before was gone. I was in an ambulance my daughter and granddaughter was there and I still unsure what reality was yet. I stayed in the hospital recovered my body temp was 81 when they found me. I was able to go on living thanks to the men who saved my granddaughter and me. I can revisit that feeling i had in 2011 unable to compair it with any other experiences in life. There was no fear, no sadness, no cold nor heat just this amazing calm peaceful weightless experience surround by the transparent blue. I am glad to be alive but more important to share my experiences with families of those who lost loved ones.
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...
written by Vipin pundir , September 25, 2015

My friend who was so dear to me drowned today in rishikesh india ..it is so disturbing whenthinking what he would have suffered while drowning ..his body is yet not found ..it extremely hard to think of what would have happened to my friend..
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Thank you
written by Carolyn , September 03, 2015

Thank you for the stories. They bring comfort. I have been worried the little Syrian boys who recently drowned suffered. I am hopeful they passed peacefully as many of you suggest.
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Nearly drowned
written by Nick , April 13, 2015

I went white water rafting with my brothers , cousin and uncle yesterday. I've rafted once before n vowed never to do it again after falling out, but this year I lost the fear and wated to take my big brother for his stag party. We had a perfect storm, rain the week before ice cold 39 degree water and a 67 degree day. As we got in to the first of 3 large Rapids , we hit the wave perfectly head on. As you should, but in the blink of an eye , I was under water. I was pinched between the boat which was caught on a rock and facing the oncoming river current, just beneath the surface. I tried to get to the surface and for a moment I thought I was high enough to take a breath, but the current filled my stomach with water in that moment and I found no air. After about the third minute I realized I was calm as I've ever been, I thought of my wife n daughter(10) and two boys( 3 and 6) and knew I wasn't making it out of this water alive, I started to fall asleep, with water in my body like a warm hug, I closed my eyes in complete peace. Just as they closed I was ripped out of my slumber by my brother who was just pulled out of unconsciousness and my other brother n cousin. The guide was screaming from the other boat to get me in the boat. I sat up, vomited about a gallon of water, grabbed my paddle and we nailed class iv Rapids hsrd for the next hour straight. I have been reliving this moment repeatedly for the last 24 hours. I can't focus on anything for longer than 10 minutes without drifting into the memory. crazy
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It feells very peaceful
written by Patricia , April 07, 2015

When I was a little girl, probably about 2 or3, I remember everything clearly as if it happened yesterday. I remember only one thing, the total peace and comfort I was feeling. I remember looking up and seeing a big yellowish bright big light and i remember saying to myself 'isn't that beautiful' and then i was happy and felt like i was almost sleeping. no pain only comfort and peace. Thank God my poor mother grabbed me by the hair and saved me. That part i do not remember but she told me the whole story when i was older. i was a very active kid always trying to get away from my family, as most kids do i guess, and somehow she turned away for a few minutes and headed for the ocean! I thought i would tell the people here that have lost loved ones to drownings that they more than likely felt a peace that is not scary at all. When i think back on my exp. now i realize the yellow thing i saw was either the sun or a quick view to heaven. I hope this story helps anyone going through such heartbreaking exp. some peace.
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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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