Drowning and Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Today’s paper is from the lovely EM residencies affiliated with Harvard. They wrote up a case report of a patient that was injured while boating, resulting in drowning.

First, let’s get one thing clear. There is no clinical entity known as near-drowning. While it is included in the title and referenced multiple times in the case report, this is the wrong terminology. As written in a followup letter to the editor

In 2002, the World Congress on Drowning developed the following Utstein style definition for drowning: the process of experiencing respiratory impairment due to submersion or immersion in a liquid.

We need to have a standardized verbiage for these events so we can have better data collection and communication.

With that out-of-the-way, let’s get to the evidence in drowning, as this case report is surprisingly chock-full of tidbits of information.

First, if there is any possibility that there was an aspiration, the patient must be observed for 6 hours. Also consider the fact that 20% of nonfatal drownings have concomitant neurologic damage. Cardiac dysrhythmias should be evaluated for, as they can be both the cause of and an effect of drowning. If at any time their pulse ox, respirations, cardiac rhythm, or mental status changes, they must be reassessed with radiography and/or ABG.

It takes a surprisingly small volume of water to compromise surfactant. In fact, it just takes aspirating 1-3 mL/kg of body weight, which can be an exceedingly small amount in a child.  However, it takes significantly more liquid (11 mL/kg) to cause blood volume changes. If you’re thinking about electrolyte abnormalities, realized that 22 mL/kg is required for this, which implies it is unlikely to occur in an adult.

With drownings, you have good odds that alcohol or another intoxicant was involved.  Between 30 and 50% of them are attributed to alcohol, and if your blood alcohol level is >150mg/dL, your odds ratio of death is 37.4 over sober controls.

Don’t give empiric antibiotics unless they drowned in a septic tank or some other grossly contaminated body of water. However, if they show signs or symptoms of infection later, antibiotics are recommended.

Finally, and this is the major point of this case report, be very cognizant of respiratory decline. Patients can have either acute lung injury or adult respiratory distress syndrome after dying, and these conditions have high mortality. Apart from positive pressure ventilation, not much seems to help. Intubate patients as needed. Certainly you want to follow ARDSnet data and use lung protective tidal volumes (6mL/kg), and keep their oxygen saturation between 88-95% (or PaO2 between 55-80 on ABG).

Unfortunately, the data isn’t great for using non-invasive positive pressure ventilation, but certainly it is unlikely to cause harm as long as it doesn’t delay intubation if needed. You can also consider fluid restriction as long as the patient has adequate perfusion, but realize this didn’t change the 60 day mortality.


  • Buggia M, Canham L, Tibbles C, Landry A. Near drowning and adult respiratory distress syndrome. J Emerg Med. 2014 Jun;46(6):821-5. [PMID 24642043]

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EBM Gone Wild

Wilderness Medicine

Emergency physician with interests in wilderness and prehospital medicine. Medical Director of the Texas State Aquarium, Padre Island National Seashore, Robstown EMS, and Code 3 ER | EBM gone Wild | @EBMGoneWild |

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