Management for the Drowning Patient

Chest. 2021 Apr;159(4):1473-1483. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2020.10.007. Epub 2020 Oct 14.


Drowning is "the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid." According to the World Health Organization, drowning claims the lives of > 40 people every hour of every day. Drowning involves some physiological principles and medical interventions that are unique. It occurs in a deceptively hostile environment that involves an underestimation of the dangers or an overestimation of water competency. It has been estimated that > 90% of drownings are preventable. When water is aspirated into the airways, coughing is the initial reflex response. The acute lung injury alters the exchange of oxygen in different proportions. The combined effects of fluid in the lungs, loss of surfactant, and increased capillary-alveolar permeability result in decreased lung compliance, increased right-to-left shunting in the lungs, atelectasis, and alveolitis, a noncardiogenic pulmonary edema. Salt and fresh water aspirations cause similar pathology. If the person is not rescued, aspiration continues, and hypoxemia leads to loss of consciousness and apnea in seconds to minutes. As a consequence, hypoxic cardiac arrest occurs. The decision to admit to an ICU should consider the patient's drowning severity and comorbid or premorbid conditions. Ventilation therapy should achieve an intrapulmonary shunt ≤ 20% or Pao2:Fio2 ≥ 250. Premature ventilatory weaning may cause the return of pulmonary edema with the need for re-intubation and an anticipation of prolonged hospital stays and further morbidity. This review includes all the essential steps from the first call to action until the best practice at the prehospital, ED, and hospitalization.

Keywords: acute lung injury; aspirations; critical care; drowning; immersion; resuscitation; submersion.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Drowning*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Emergency Treatment / methods*
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Near Drowning / therapy*
  • Pulmonary Edema / therapy*
  • Resuscitation / methods*