Drowning terminology hung out to dry

23 June 2017

Drowning is ‘the process whereby a person experiences respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid’. This means that when a person drowns, the airway is blocked by water or another liquid, and this prevents them from breathing.

Drowning events may be differentiated as ‘fatal’ or ‘non-fatal’, depending on whether the person lives or dies as a result of the event.

Jonathon Webber, the New Zealand Resuscitation Council’s expert on drowning, warns that other terms are unhelpful and should not be used. ‘Dry drowning’ is one example of a term that has featured in recent media reports to describe complications that result in death some time after someone has experienced distress in the water, but which may or may not relate to drowning.

The New Zealand Resuscitation Council provides guidelines for first aid, including a guideline for management of drowning. "Drowning is a process rather than an outcome", says Webber. "As soon as a drowning person is out of the water, there ends the drowning process." He says that other terms including ‘secondary drowning’ and ‘near-drowning’ add unnecessary complexity and can be misleading.

"What we’re most interested in is preventing these incidents from occurring in the first place, and all Kiwis knowing what to do should they come across someone who is drowning", says Webber. He also reminds parents and caregivers that any child suspected of inhaling water must be seen by a doctor, and to immediately call 111 for an ambulance if the child develops breathing difficulties at the time of the incident or some time after being in the water.

What to do if someone is drowning

Drowning is all too common in New Zealand, so it is important to know what to do if you recognise that someone is in distress in the water. The management principles are to provide flotation and remove the person from the water if it is safe to do so.

Once the person is safely out of the water, they may require care. Assess the person on their back. If the person is unresponsive and not breathing normally, they need CPR. The ratio for CPR is 30 compressions to two rescue breaths. Effective rescue breaths are essential where a person has drowned.

Drowning Chain of Survival 

Further information about drowning and first aid guidelines can be found on the New Zealand Resuscitation Council’s website at nzrc.org.nz.

For queries about this statement please email or phone Lachlan McKenzie, Manager, Communications and Services on +64 27 499 6692.