Drowning - near

Alternative names
Near drowning

Drowning is death by suffocation from being submerged in water. If a person has been rescued from a near drowning situation, first aid and medical attention is critical.


  • 6,000 to 8,000 people drown in the U.S. each year. Most drownings occur within a short distance of safety. Immediate action and first aid can prevent death.  
  • A person who is drowning usually can NOT shout for help. Be alert for signs of drowning.  
  • Suspect an accident if you see someone in the water fully clothed. Watch for uneven swimming motions, which indicate a swimmer is getting tired. Often the body sinks, and only the head shows above the water.  
  • Children can drown in only a few inches of water.  
  • It may be possible to revive a drowning victim even after a prolonged period of submersion, especially if the person was in very cold water.


  • Leaving small children unattended around bathtubs and pools  
  • Drinking alcohol while boating or swimming  
  • Inability to swim or panic while swimming  
  • Falling through thin ice  
  • Blows to the head or seizures while in the water  
  • Attempted suicide


Symptoms can vary, but may include:

  • Abdominal distention  
  • Bluish skin of the face, especially around the lips  
  • Cold skin and pale appearance  
  • Confusion  
  • Cough with pink, frothy sputum  
  • Irritability  
  • Lethargy  
  • No breathing  
  • Restlessness  
  • Shallow or gasping respirations  
  • Chest pain  
  • Unconsciousness  
  • Vomiting

First Aid

When someone is drowning:

  • Extend a long pole or branch to the person, or use a throw rope attached to a buoyant object, such as a life ring or life jacket. Toss it to the floundering person, then pull him or her to shore.  
  • People who have fallen through ice become hypothermic very rapidly and may not be able to grasp objects within their reach or hold on while being pulled to safety.  
  • Do not place yourself in danger. Do NOT get into the water or go out onto ice unless your own safety can be assured.  
  • If you are trained to attempt rescue, do so immediately if you can assure your own safety.

If the victim’s breathing has stopped, begin rescue breaths as soon as you safely can. This often means starting the breathing process while still in the water.

Continue to breathe for the person every few seconds while moving them to shore. Once on land, administer CPR if needed. For step-by-step instructions on rescue breathing, see the article on CPR.

Always use caution when moving a drowning victim. Assume that the person may have a neck or spine injury, and avoid turning or bending the neck. Immobilize the head and neck during resuscitation and transport. Either tape it to a backboard or stretcher, or secure the neck by placing rolled towels or other objects around it.

Follow these additional steps:

  • Keep the person calm and immobilized. Seek medical help immediately.  
  • Remove any cold, wet clothes from the person and cover him with something warm, if possible. This will help prevent hypothermia.  
  • Administer first aid for any other serious injuries.  
  • As the person revives, he may cough and experience difficulty breathing. Calm and reassure the person until you get medical help.

Do Not

  • DO NOT go out on the ice to rescue a drowning person that you can reach with your arm or an extended object.  
  • DO NOT attempt a swimming rescue yourself unless you are trained in water rescue.  
  • DO NOT go into rough or turbulent water that may endanger you.  
  • The Heimlich maneuver is NOT part of the routine rescue of near-drowning victims. Do not perform the Heimlich maneuver unless repeated attempts to position the airway and to use rescue breathes to get air into the lungs have failed and you suspect the person’s airway is blocked. Performing the Heimlich maneuver increases the chances that an unconscious victim will vomit and subsequently choke on the vomit.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

If you cannot rescue the drowning person without endangering yourself, call for emergency medical assistance immediately. If you are trained and able to rescue the person, do so and then call for medical help.

All near-drowning victims should be checked by a doctor. Even though victims may revive quickly at the scene, lung complications are common.


  • Avoid drinking alcohol whenever swimming or boating.  
  • Observe water safety rules.  
  • Take a water safety course.  
  • Never allow children to swim alone or unsupervised regardless of their ability to swim.  
  • Never leave children alone for any period of time, or let them leave your line of sight around any pool or body of water. Drownings have occurred when parents left “for just a minute” to answer the phone or door.  
  • Drowning can occur in any container of water. Do not leave any standing water (in empty basins, buckets, ice chests, kiddy pools, or bathtubs). Secure the toilet seat cover with a child safety device.  
  • Fence all pools and spas. Secure all the doors to the outside, and install pool and door alarms.  
  • If your child is missing, check the pool immediately.


Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Gevorg A. Poghosian, Ph.D.

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