What is the background of drowning?

Updated: Jun 19, 2019
  • Author: G Patricia Cantwell, MD, FCCM; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
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Drowning remains a significant worldwide public health concern, ranking as the third leading cause of unintentional injury death and accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. It is a major cause of disability and death, particularly in children. At least one third of survivors sustain moderate-to-severe neurologic sequelae. [1, 2, 3]

Exact definitions of drowning have varied widely. [4] Drowning was previously defined as death secondary to asphyxia while immersed in a liquid, usually water, or within 24 hours of submersion.

At the 2002 World Congress on Drowning held in Amsterdam, a group of experts suggested a new consensus definition for drowning in order to decrease the confusion over the number of terms and definitions (>20) that have appeared in the literature. [5]  This group developed a uniform definition that allowed more accurate analysis and comparison of studies, enabled researchers to draw more meaningful conclusions from pooled data, and improved the ease of surveillance and prevention activities.

The consensus definition states that drowning is a process resulting in primary respiratory impairment from submersion in a liquid medium. Implicit in this definition is that a liquid-air interface is present at the entrance to the victim's airway, which prevents the individual from breathing oxygen. The terms "wet drowning", "dry drowning", "active or passive drowning", "near-drowning", "secondary drowning", and "silent drowning" may be noted in historical references, yet they have been abandoned in favor of the general term "drowning." Terms describing outcomes were simplified to death, morbidity, or no morbidity. [5]

Drowning usually occurs silently and rapidly. The classic image of a victim helplessly gasping and thrashing in the water is infrequently reported. The more ominous scenario of a motionless individual floating in the water or quietly disappearing beneath the surface is more typical.

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