Drowning Death

Drowning deaths are considered a public health problem, both in the United States and abroad. Many organizations are diligently working on ways to minimize the number of drowning deaths, including increased public awareness and stricter laws surrounding water recreation. Most drowning deaths are unintentional, but in some cases drowning is used as a means of suicide or homicide.

Unintentional Drowning Death

The most common cause of unintentional drowning death in the United States is a child under the age of five drowning in a swimming pool. This type of drowning death occurs most often at residences when parents are present but unaware that the child has gone missing until it is too late. Continuous supervision as well as barriers that make it difficult for the child to enter the pool area can help to minimize this type of drowning death.

Other causes of unintentional drowning death include:

  • Sustaining incapacitating injury during water sports or boating
  • Falling under water while intoxicated
  • Inability to swim or lack of swimming ability for conditions
  • Having a seizure while in water, including bathtubs
  • Becoming stuck in water park ride, pool, or spa
  • Blacking out while in water
  • Inhaling water or other liquid into the lungs

Intentional Drowning Death

While not a leading means of suicide, drowning is used in about two percent of suicide cases. The body has a natural tendency to come up for air and is highly buoyant, so ropes or heavy object are used in most cases to keep the body under water during an intentional drowning death. The body will involuntary begin to gasp for air, so water will enter the lungs after a short while and speed the process of drowning.

Physiology of Drowning Death

Drowning death occurs when the level of oxygen in the blood becomes too low to sustain brain function. This most often occurs while the individual is still submerged in water, but has been known to occur hours after a near-drowning incident, in some cases. There are many factors that may change the amount of time it takes for any individual to die from drowning.

Reaction to Drowning

When water begins to enter the airways and touch the vocal cords, an involuntary action called a laryngospasm often occurs, sealing the airways. This can either be helpful or harmful, as the laryngospasm will prevent both water and air from entering the lungs. In some cases, the airways will relax and allow the water to enter the lungs after a time, causing drowning. In other cases, the airway constriction will allow rescuers to resuscitate the victim and prevent drowning.


While hypothermia is often viewed unfavorably, cold temperatures may actually prolong a victim’s life in a drowning incident. Cold temperatures cause the body to use oxygen more slowly. In some cases, this has allowed rescuers to resuscitate a drowning victim after being under water for an extended period of time.




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“Drowning.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 30 Jan 2014. <http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/other_injury/drowning/en/>.

“Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Nov 2012. Web. 30 Jan 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html>.