Near-Drowning Accidents

Drowning and Near-Drowning As Public Health Problems

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 4,000 fatal drowning accidents in the United States each year, with an unknown number of additional victims of what has been called “near-drowning” although that term is gradually falling from use. Instead, the trend now is to classify drownings as “wet” or “dry,” depending on whether or not the vocal chords and the muscles surrounding the larynx (voice box) go into spasm and prevent water from entering the lungs.

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal Open (Volume 5 Issue 12, 2016) researchers at the University of Louisville (KY) have determined that the number of reported non-fatal drowning accidents remained stable during the 5-year period spanning 2006 to 2011. During that period there were just under 20,000 non-fatal drownings reported with the following racial / ethnic characteristics:

  • 66% of all near-drownings occurred in swimming pools
  • children from racial / ethnic minorities experienced more near-drownings in natural waterways (rivers, ponds, streams, etc) than in swimming pools
  • children admitted to a hospital after a near-drowning tended to be younger males from lower income families
  • non-Hispanic Caucasian children less than 4 years of age were more likely to experience non-fatal drowning in swimming pools than any other group

With these numbers in mind, it is easy to see that acute and long term care of near-drowning can represent a significant drain on the amount of health care spending among racial / ethnic minorities.


It can be said that anyone who survives an accident while swimming or some form of accidental immersion in water is a victim of “near-drowning.” However, there is a recognized medical syndrome that appears in these survivors of aquatic accidents.

The “Near-Drowning” or “Secondary Drowning Syndrome” was first mentioned in the medical literature in a 1980 article in the British Medical Journal (J. H. Pearn, “Secondary drowning in children,” BMJ October 25, 1980) in which the author noted a pattern of respiratory symptoms that developed within 1 to 48 hours after children were rescued from accidental immersion in water. Over the years since that publication, the syndrome has become accepted as a potentially fatal complication of near-drowning in children and, to a lesser degree, in adult survivors as well.

Near-Drowning / Secondary Drowning Syndrome appears to be caused by a relatively small amount of water that enters the lungs via inhalation during the early stages of a sudden immersion in water. Once water enters the upper respiratory tract it causes a spasm of the trachea and vocal cords as a part of the body’s natural protective response to a foreign substance. As a result of that spasm, there is no oxygen / carbon dioxide exchange in the lungs and unconsciousness occurs after about one minute. As the depth of unconsciousness increases, the spasm in the upper airway relaxes and water fills the lungs. If there has been no rescue within the first five minutes after unconsciousness sets in, death will occur. If, however, a rescue occurs while the upper airway is still closed the victim will seem to quickly recover. Unfortunately, in a few cases the victim’s respiratory function will begin to fall and, if the symptoms are not quickly identified, may rapidly progress and death may occur unless the victim receives prompt and aggressive medical care.

Symptoms of Near-Drowning / Secondary Drowning Syndrome may include:

  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • extreme tiredness
  • unusual irritability

If any of these symptoms develop within the first few hours after a near-drowning incident, the victim must be taken to a medical facility with a fully-staffed Emergency Room, preferably one with access to a pediatric intensive care specialist. Even in situations where care is received promptly, up to 50% of victims will either die or will suffer some degree of neurological impairment that may persist for life.

How a Drowning Accident Lawyer May Help Near-Drowning Accident Victims

It is well known that many drowning and near-drowning accidents, particularly those involving children, would be preventable if only someone was available to supervise those that are unable to protect themselves. As has been noted in other posts available on this site, in many cases this lack of supervision is due to negligence on the part of the owners of swimming pools or other recreational sites where children are often present.

If it can be shown that negligence was a cause of a near-drowning injury, the negligent party can be held liable for that injury and ordered to pay compensation to the victim and the victim’s family. In order to determine if negligence did occur, it is necessary to consult with a drowning accident attorney to examine exactly what happened and who was responsible for the accident. If it appears that negligence was a factor in the accident, a drowning accident lawyer will be able to file a lawsuit to recover damages and other expenses in order to relieve the victim and the victim’s family of the financial burden that so often follows these tragic injuries.