Topic Overview

What is near-drowning?

Near-drowning is a common but out-of-date phrase for surviving a drowning event.

Drowning happens when a person is underwater and breathes water into the lungs. The airway (larynx) can spasm and close, or water can damage the lungs and keep them from taking in oxygen. In either case, the lungs can't supply oxygen to the body. This can be deadly.

Going without oxygen has a rapid effect on the body.

  • Within 3 minutes underwater, most people lose consciousness.
  • Within 5 minutes underwater, the brain's oxygen supply begins to drop. A lack of oxygen can cause brain damage.

What happens after a person survives a drowning?

Right after a drowning, a person may:

  • Be unconscious, unable to breathe, or without a heartbeat.
  • Gasp for air, cough up pink froth, vomit, or breathe rapidly.
  • Seem to be fine.

Even a little water in the lungs can cause serious lung problems in the next hours or days. Emergency medical care is critical after a person survives a drowning.

When to call your doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if a drowning victim has:

  • Lost consciousness.
  • Stopped breathing.
  • No heartbeat.
  • Inhaled water and then gasped for air, coughed up pink froth, vomited, or breathed rapidly.
  • Become confused or seems to be in an altered mental state.

Call a doctor now if a recent drowning victim has new breathing problems or signs of a lung infection, such as:

  • A cough with or without colored mucus.
  • Rapid breathing. Breaths may also be shallow.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • A fever.
  • An unusual level of weakness.
  • A whistling noise (wheezing) while breathing.
  • Tightness in the chest.


Other Works Consulted

  • Christiani DC (2012). Physical and chemical injuries of the lung. In L Goldman, A Shafer, eds., Goldman's Cecil Medicine, 24th ed., vol. 3, pp. 574–581. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Shephard E, Quan L (2012). Drowning and submersion injury. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 341–348. Philadelphia: Saunders.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine

Current as ofJune 4, 2014