Drowning to Death
Typically, when a victim realizes that they cannot keep their head above water they tend to panic, leading to the classic “surface struggle”. They gasp for air at the surface and hold their breath as they bob beneath. Struggling to breathe, they can’t call for help. Their bodies are upright, arms weakly grasping, as if trying to climb a non-existent ladder from the sea. Studies with New York lifeguards in the 1950s and 1960s found that this stage lasts just 20 to 60 seconds.
When victims eventually submerge, they hold their breath for as long as possible, typically 30 to 90 seconds. After that, they inhale some water, splutter, cough and inhale more. Water in the lungs blocks gas exchange in delicate tissues, while inhaling water also triggers the airway to seal shut – a reflex called a laryngospasm. “There is a feeling of tearing and a burning sensation in the chest as water goes down into the airway. Then that sort of slips into a feeling of calmness and tranquility,” describing reports from survivors.
That calmness represents the beginnings of the loss of consciousness from oxygen deprivation, which eventually results in the heart stopping and brain death.