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What happens when you drown?

On average, 400 people drown with a further 200 people taking their own lives in UK waters each year. This is a serious number. The UK has a dedicated search and rescue service that tries its hardest to come to everyone's rescue but in some cases, people succumb to the waters. So what exactly happens when you drown?

Drowning is defined as the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from the submersion of liquid.

Drowning is extremely dangerous and men and children under the age of ten are more susceptible to this. Drowning is penned to be a ‘silent killer. Unlike Hollywood movie depictions, in real-life scenarios, you are unlikely to be flailing your arms and screaming for help. This takes too much energy which your body is trying to preserve.

In the first instances of drowning, there is an involuntary breath hold. The victim will hold their breath for as long as they can until the urge to breathe again takes over. During this, their heart rate increases as does their blood pressure. This is due to the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response.

There is also a rise in carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, this is called hypercapnia. The rise of carbon dioxide sets off alarms in the body, as the victim's body does not want their blood to become acidic, causing the victim to take this gasping breath.

When they try to inhale more air, they will also be aspiring water as they struggle to keep their head above the water levels. The water hits the larynx causing laryngospasm. Laryngospasm is the contraction of the vocal folds (part of your voice box). This blocks the airway preventing the intake of more water but also more air, making breathing near impossible.

The body is now unable to get much needed oxygen, causing hypoxia. The low levels of oxygen and the high levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream damages the internal organs. A lack of oxygen in the lungs may cause the heart to stop beating causing cardiac arrest. This halts the flow of blood and stops the transport of oxygen to the brain. The lack of oxygen to the brain will render the body unconscious and can cause hypoxic convulsion. This causes the body to jerk violently and frothing at the mouth can occur. The brain cannot survive long without oxygen, and the continued lack of oxygen in the blood, combined with cardiac arrest, will lead to the deterioration of brain cells, causing first brain damage and eventually brain death. The skin also adopts a blue tinge at this stage.

If the body is not rescued, the body will start to sink but then due to the putrefaction of the body and build-up of gases after death, it will start to rise to the surface of the water again.

If a near-drowning victim is successfully revived, the interruption of oxygen to the brain may have enough to cause severe brain damage. However, there are cases where people survive unscathed as well.

The depth of the water and whether it is salt or freshwater do not play major roles in the process of drowning. People have been reported to have drowned in bathtubs as well as in puddles.

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