Dry drowning, the immediate gasp response and responding to a reader challenge
Last week I reposted information from Ian Gilson of the Canadian Boating Council describing the “immediate gasp response,” or what happens when a person lands in water below 15 C. The short explanation is we breathe in fast and hard, potentially sucking up to a litre of water into our lungs.
A reader (hooray!) objected to that explanation and raised an interesting question.
What exactly happens when we drown?
His comments are posted below in their entirety:
“Ian Gilson explained that the shock of hitting water below 15 C could cause a person to take a forceful involuntary breath. That means you can inhale up to a litre of water." Ian Gilson's opinion should not be taken for fact. Very little, if any, water enters the lungs of a conscious victim that is in the process of drowning. When water enters the airways of conscious and even unconscious victims, they experience a laryngospasm. The larynx (vocal cords) constricts and seals the trachea (the air tube). This prevents water from entering the lungs. The chance that a person would inhale 1 litre of water from the 'immediate gasp response' is somewhere between slim and none.”
So, does water always enter the lungs of a person who is drowning and is that what kills them?
Or does our body, in its efforts to protect us by sealing off our lungs, do the job itself?
Enter Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor with the University of Manitoba. Giesbrecht, also known as "Dr. Popsicle" is a go-to expert on hypothermia, cold-water immersion and drowning in Canada.
In an email he said that Gilson’s point on what happens when we hit cold water is correct. The reader’s comment that very little if any water enters a drowning person’s lungs is “false.”
“When someone drowns, almost all the time the victim breathes water into the lungs; that is what kills them,” he said.
“In rare situations, reflex closure of the vocal cords can result in dry drowning, with death due to asphyxia; the victim chokes to death. After death, the muscles relax and water flows into the lungs. This is very rare though. Generally, drowning is due to inhaling water into the lungs.”
Anyone interested in riveting descriptions of drowning should pick up a copy of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. The book includes details on wet and dry (when your throat closes over) drowning. Junger's descriptions are a compilation of interviews, expert opinion and multiple records of near drowning experiences. Great cottage reading. It gives you an entirely new and justified respect for large bodies of water.
Bonus information: Police Constable Gary Gibson, the officer who taught me to use ice picks with the Marine Unit, noted that anyone who has sucked any quantity of water into their lungs should go to the hospital.
Water in the GTA will likely be thick with bacteria.
“You could end up with a lung infection," said Gibson. "Believe it or not, people have died from that."