What Happens to the Body During Drowning?
Drowning causes thousands of deaths yearly, even though it’s preventable with proper training and precautions.

What most people don’t know about drowning, however, is how it affects the body while it’s happening.

If you’re curious about what happens to the body during drowning, keep reading to learn more about the science of drowning.

How Long Can You Hold Your Breath Underwater?
Most people can hold their breath for about one minute. But some people can train themselves to hold their breath for much longer. This is called apnea.

Free-divers can hold their breath for more than eight minutes. And in 2016,  SpanishAleix Segura Vendrell set a world record by holding his breath underwater for 24 minutes!
How Long Does it take to Drown?
It takes only a few seconds to drown, but it can take up to three minutes for a person submerged in water to become unconscious. During this time, their airway may be blocked by fluid in the lungs or mouth, making breathing difficult or impossible.

Here’s what happens to the body during drowning.

The body’s response to drowning begins when the brain senses hypoxia  (oxygen deprivation). This causes the nervous system to trigger a series of reactions meant to protect vital organs, e.g., the heart and lungs, from damage until the victim is removed from the water and resuscitation efforts begin.

A person can survive for hours or even days after being immersed in water and still be alive, depending on how deep the water was, how long the person was underwater, and other factors.

However, there is a consensus that someone can die from drowning within minutes of submerging. They’re unlikely to survive within an hour, and within twelve hours, they will almost certainly die from their injuries.
How Fast Do Lungs Collapse Underwater?
Under normal circumstances, our lungs can collapse and reform as we breathe in and out. However, when we’re submerged underwater, the water pressure is so great that it can prevent our lungs from collapsing.

This can cause our chest cavity to fill with fluid, which puts pressure on our heart and prevents it from pumping blood effectively. In severe cases, this can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Another vital aspect of drowning is oxygen deprivation.

When someone’s head goes under water, their airways close off due to an automatic reflex called the laryngeal sphincter. These airways need to remain open for a person to breathe naturally and keep their oxygen levels up. Without air or oxygen, hypoxia can set in quickly, causing brain damage or even death if not treated soon enough.

For hypoxia not to occur, a person needs 100% oxygen saturation. This means they need all the parts of their body, including skin and organs like kidneys, liver, and brain cells–to receive enough oxygen from the bloodstream.
Do We Black Out Before We Drown?
You might think you would black out before drowning, but that’s not necessarily the case. Scientists have found that a loss of consciousness follows a period of hyperventilation. But this doesn’t happen immediately, and here’s how drowning happens.
What happens to the body during drowning?
The body’s instinct is to hold its breath when it comes into contact with water, which is why people can hold their breath underwater for so long. But eventually, the body will start to panic and will begin taking in water, and this is what causes drowning.

what happens to the body during drowning? An illustration of drowning chain of survival.
Author credit: By David szpilman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34111788

When someone starts to struggle and then gasps for air, they’re filling their lungs with both air and water. And because the airways are already narrowed from panicking or struggling against water, it is hard to get oxygen into your lungs as you go under.

If a person manages to avoid panicking completely, they’ll be able to calm themselves down enough that they won’t inhale any water, even if they’ve been submerged for some time. However, even those who remain calm still need oxygen if submerged under 10 meters (32 feet) of water or more.

This is how you die from drowning – oxygen deprivation or brain damage due to hypoxia (a lack of oxygen).
Does Water Temperature Affect How Quickly We Drown?
Many factors affect how quickly a person drowns, including their swimming ability, the temperature of the water, and whether they are wearing a life jacket.

Cold water immersion can generally lead to hypothermia and make it difficult to swim, contributing to drowning. However, even in warm water, drowning can occur quickly if a swimmer is not prepared or does not have adequate swimming skills.
Does Alcohol Affect Your Ability to Swim and Avoid Drowning?
Alcohol decreases your coordination and reaction time, making swimming more difficult. It also increases your risk of hypothermia and lowers your body temperature. Alcohol also dehydrates you, which can make cramping more likely.

So next time you’re headed to the beach, leave the booze at home. If you happen to fall in, though, be sure to know how to save yourself!

First, roll onto your back so water doesn’t get into your nose or mouth. Then, extend both arms straight out on either side of you for balance.

When you feel like trying to stand up is safe (keep an eye on currents!). You can do this by using slow motion, such as swinging one arm back while using the other for balance.
Steps to Issue CPR First Aid to a Drowning Victim
When someone is drowning, every second counts. That’s why knowing how to administer CPR properly in an emergency is important. Here are the steps you should take:

  1. Call 911 immediately.
  2. Check for signs of responsiveness. If the person is unresponsive, begin CPR first aid.
  3. Start chest compressions. Place your hands in the center of the person’s chest and push down firmly at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute.
  4. Open the airway. Tilt the head back and lift the chin up to open the airway.
  5. Give rescue breaths. Pinch the nose shut and place your mouth over the person’s mouth to create an airtight seal.

If the victim is still unconscious, continue with chest pushes until trained rescuers arrive. Find someone with CPR knowledge if you do not know how to issue chest compressions. CPR First Aid training teaches what happens to the body during drowning and how to assist a victim.
Can You Do Anything When a Person’s Face Has Turned blue from Drowning?
When someone has gone blue in the face from drowning, they have suffered oxygen deprivation for too long, and their body is starting to shut down. Very little can be done at this point, as the damage has already been done.

The best thing to do is to get the person out of the water immediately and start CPR First Aid. With prompt medical attention, some people have been known to survive even after being submerged for over an hour.
What are the Chances of Recovering from Drowning?
If someone is not breathing or has no pulse when pulled out of the water, they may have no brain function and thus be in a coma or vegetative state (a comatose state).

However, this doesn’t mean that they won’t recover eventually; however, survival rates are lower than other types of injury, so doctors consider this when treating patients rescued after a suspected drowning incident.
What Factors Can Increase the Risk of Drowning
The first factor that can increase the risk of drowning is the time spent in water. The longer you’re in the water, the greater your risk of drowning.

Other factors that may contribute to drowning include:

  • Being alone or being with a limited number of people.
  • Not wearing a life jacket, especially when swimming in open water where rescuers can’t reach you quickly enough.
  • Disease and disability. Individuals with a history of cerebral palsy, an injury or fracture, or amputation are at greater risk of drowning than healthy people who have not experienced those types of injuries.
  • Swimming near a significant body of water like a river or lake where there’s a lot of traffic and more people are around.
  • Not knowing how to swim or not having any training for swimming techniques (such as treading water).
  • Age is also a factor. Children and people of age are at a higher risk of drowning.

Lastly, drug and alcohol use can increase the risk of drowning by impairing judgment, coordination, balance, and muscle strength.
Last Words on What Happens to the Body During Drowning
The risk of drowning increases when the victim cannot communicate with others or has no means to call for help. This is why it’s crucial to have people around you when swimming in a pool or open water.