Cranial computed tomographic findings in a large group of children with drowning: diagnostic, prognostic, and forensic implications

Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2008 Nov;9(6):567-72. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0b013e31818c8955.


Objectives: The primary aim of this study is to better define both the type and incidence of cranial computed tomography (CT) abnormalities in children following submersion injury.

Design: This is a retrospective chart review; patients were selected from a drowning registry that extends from January 1989 to April 2006.

Setting: Children's Hospital, San Diego.

Patients: Patients were included if they were admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of drowning and had a cranial CT within 24 hrs of submersion. Of 961 patients in the registry, 156 were included.

Interventions: None.

Measurements and main results: Eighteen percent (28 of 156) of children had an abnormal initial head CT, 82% (128 of 156) had a normal CT. Fifteen percent (24 of 156) of patients initially had a normal head CT and later had an abnormal CT. Abnormal CT findings were remarkable for diffuse loss of gray-white differentiation (75% on presentation) and bilateral basal ganglia edema/infarct (50% on presentation). There was no evidence of intra- or extra-axial blood nor were there any unilateral findings in any of the abnormal CTs. Presenting Glasgow Coma Scale was significantly lower in those who presented with an abnormal versus a normal head CT (p < 0.001). All patients with an abnormal initial CT presented with a Glasgow Coma Scale of 3, and all eventually died. Outcome was also very poor in those with a normal first CT and an abnormal second CT; 54% died and 42% remained in a persistent vegetative state.

Conclusions: These data from the largest study of CT findings in pediatric drowning clearly illustrate that following submersion injury, intra- or extra-axial bleeding is not seen on cranial CT. Furthermore, an abnormal CT scan at any time was associated with a poor outcome (death or persistent vegetative state). The CT findings and the presenting Glasgow Coma Scale of patients with drowning differ from those of patients who have suffered abusive head trauma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / diagnosis
  • Child, Preschool
  • Drowning / diagnostic imaging
  • Drowning / pathology*
  • Forensic Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Prognosis
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed