Drowning risk factors

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Risk Factors

Most drownings occur in water, 90% in freshwater (rivers, lakes and pools) 10% in seawater, drownings in other fluids are rare and often industrial accidents.

Common conditions and risk factors that may lead to drowning include but are not limited to:

  • Males are more likely to drown than females, especially in the 18-24 age bracket.
  • Failing to wear a PFD when boating.
  • Lack of supervision of young children (less than 5 years old).
  • Water conditions exceed the swimmer's ability - turbulent or fast water, water out of depth, falling through ice, rip currents, undertows, currents, waves and eddies.
  • Entrapment - physically unable to get out of the situation because of a lack of an escape route, snagging or by being hampered by clothing or equipment.
  • Impaired judgment and physical incapacitation arising from the use of drugs, principally alcohol.
  • Incapacitation arising from the conditions - cold (hypothermia), shock, injury or exhaustion.
  • Incapacitation arising from acute illness while swimming - heart attack, seizure or stroke.
  • Forcible submersion by another person - murder or misguided children's play.
  • Snowmobiling after dark.
  • Blackout underwater after rapid breathing to extend a breath-hold dive - shallow water blackout.
  • Blackout on ascent from a deep breath-hold dive due to latent hypoxia - deep water blackout.

People have drowned in as little as 30 mm of water lying face down, in one case in a wheel rut. Children have drowned in baths, buckets and toilets; inebriates or those under the influence of drugs have died in puddles. For a more detailed list of causes see swimming.


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