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What is Drowning?

In 2002 world experts in clinical medicine, injury epidemiology, education and rescue developed an internationally accepted definition for drowning.

Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid; outcomes are classified as death, morbidity, and no morbidity.” (International Life Saving Federation, 2016).

This definition allows for both cases of fatal and non-fatal drowning. In New Zealand, for every one fatality there are eight non-fatal drowning incidents.

Drowning affects all New Zealanders irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender or social economic status.

It is consistently the third highest cause of unintentional death in New Zealand, surpassed only by road vehicle crashes and accidental falls.

WSNZ and it’s members have achieved considerable success since its inception in 1949. Over the last 29 years a 60% reduction in drowning has occurred since a record high in 1985 of 214. 

Death by drowning

This account explains the physiology involved in the process of drowning.

Copyright 1997 Sebastian Junger. Published by Fourth Estate. Reproduced with permission of Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency.

“Researchers have shown that a human in a drowning situation holds their breath for 87 seconds. That’s how long the instinct not to breathe can overcome the thought of running out of air; how long a sort of clear headedness lasts. Eighty-seven is the break point.

Until the break point a drowning person is said to be undergoing “voluntary apnoea” – choosing not to breathe. Lack of oxygen to the brain causes a sensation of darkness closing in from all sides. The panic of a drowning person is mixed with the odd incredulity that this is actually happening.

When the first involuntary breath is taken most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing water. At this point the person goes from voluntary to involuntary apnoea and the drowning begins in earnest.

A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe and then one of two things happens. In about 10 per cent of people water touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. This is called laryngospasm and it’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm dies without water in the lungs.

In the other 90 per cent of people water floods the lungs and ends any warning transfer of oxygen to the blood. The clock is running down now; half-conscious and enfeebled by oxygen depletion, the drowning person is in no condition to fight.

They have suffered for a minute or two. Their bodies, having imposed increasingly drastic measures to keep functioning, have finally started to shut down. Only the brain is alive, but its electrical activity gets weaker and weaker until, after 15-20 minutes, it ceases altogether.”

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