Children, males and individuals with increased access to water are most at risk of drowning. A 2014 report on drowning shows that age is one of the major risk factors for drowning. This relationship is often associated with a lapse in supervision. The highest drowning rates are among children 1–4 years, followed by children 5–9 years. In the United States drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children aged 1–14 years.
Males are especially at risk of drowning, with twice the overall rate of females. Studies suggest that the higher drowning rates are due to increased exposure to water and riskier behavior such as swimming alone, drinking alcohol before swimming alone and boating. Individuals with occupations such as commercial fishing or fishing for subsistence, using small boats in low-income countries are more prone to drowning.
Children who live near open water sources, such as ditches, ponds, irrigation channels, or pools are especially at risk. In the US, African-American children are particularly at risk with children between 5 and 14 years old drowning nearly three times as often as whites of the same age. This often occurs in swimming pools because majority of African Americans live in urban centers, where they are less likely to encounter pools or learn to swim.
Drowning accounts for 75 percent of deaths in flood disasters. Daily commuting and journeys made by migrants or asylum seekers often take place on overcrowded, unsafe vessels lacking safety equipment or are operated by personnel untrained in dealing with transport incidents or navigation.
Lake Tahoe which lies in the Sierra Nevada mountains between California and Nevada is a popular vacation destination, but there's a secret the travel brochures won't tell you. The lake is 1,645 feet deep and it is a graveyard.
Floaters is the term used for corpses found bobbing on the surface of the water. Soon after drowning bacterial activity inside the corpse causes a buildup of gases and the body floats to the surface. Not in Lake Tahoe. It's is so cold that it inhibits the bacteria and bodies rarely float to the surface. Because of the lake’s elevation is 6,225 feet above sea level, divers cannot descend as deep as they could in other bodies of water and the missing are often never found. In 2011, some divers, whose specialized equipment allows them to go down 350 feet discovered the body of a man who’d been missing since 1995. The water temperature was only 35 degrees F. at 265 feet. The body was in remarkably good condition because the frigid water preserved the body and did not allow bacteria to flourish. No one knows how many thousands of corpses are in Lake Tahoe.
You would think that swimming in the ocean is far more dangerous than swimming in a lake with their waves and riptides, but about 90 percent of drowning cases occur in freshwater. The reason involves a bit of chemistry. Fresh water is more similar in composition to our own blood than salt water. When it is inhaled into the lungs, it passes into the bloodstream through osmosis. When the blood is so radically diluted, cells burst, leading to organ failure. The entire process takes two to three minutes. Ocean water contains far more salt than human blood. When it is aspirated, the body attempts to regulate itself by transferring water into the lungs, thickening the blood. It takes considerably longer to kill a person, between 8 to 10 minutes, allowing a much greater chance of rescue.
Delayed drowning is possible, especially in children. A child may inhale a little water, but after sputtering and coughing, appear to return to normal. They can actually inhale a sufficient amount of water to slowly drain the oxygen from their body and kill them. While this could happen to anyone, children are the most susceptible and if kids show any of the following symptoms after swimming: problems breathing, exhaustion or odd behavior, you should seek immediate medical attention.
The Dead Sea, located between Israel and Jordan, is so named because its salinity leaves it practically devoid of life. The myth goes that since the water is so salty it is too dense for a person to drown. While it is true that it is almost impossible to become fully submerged under water and drown, if a person gets turned over on their face, it can be hard for them to right themselves. Even a few swallows of the water, dense with salt and minerals, is toxic to the body and disrupting to the electrolyte balance. Those who are rescued before dying face a tough recovery, suffering internal burns and chemical pneumonia. In the most severe cases, dialysis may be required.
Drowning has been used as a means of execution. It was considered a rather cultivated method of capital punishment so was often reserved for women or men of privilege. Most countries outlawed the practice during the 17th century, but it saw a resurgence during the Salem witch trials and the French Revolution.
In Salem the process of determining whether one was a witch could be brutal. In what was considered one of the most reliable methods, the suspect was hog tied, weighted and thrown into the water. A human would drown, whereas a witch would float. Of course, if one floated, proving they were indeed a witch, the punishment was death. It was best to hope you never got accused of being a witch!
During the French Revolution, so many people were killed that novel methods had to be devised to allow for mass execution. The guillotine was efficient, but could only handle one person at a time. The period between November 1873 and February 1874, known as the Reign of Terror, on orders from Jean-Baptiste Carrier, thousands of people in Nantes, France were killed on suspicion of being loyal to the crown. Members of the clergy were specifically targeted; they were stripped, loaded onto barges, and drowned in a river Carrier called “the national bathtub.”
Humans do not have any particular adaptations for survival in the water. We’re poor swimmers when compared to other animals. However, humans, like whales and seals, are able to stay submerged for a time; it's called the mammalian diving reflex. When a human’s face touches water, a series of involuntary physiological responses begin: the airway closes, the heart rate slows, and the capillaries in the skin and extremities constrict, sending blood toward the vital organs. This keeps organs oxygenated and insulated. Unfortunately, it also saps strength from the limbs for swimming. This reflex is most frequently seen in drowning children who actually have a better chance of recovery than adults. The colder the water, the better, as it slows the metabolism and allows the body to enter a protective state much like hibernation. Due to this reflex, the bodies of children who have been submerged for many minutes have been resuscitated with no lasting damage.
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Mayo Clinic-Water safety: Protect your child from drowning
Parents Magazine-Drowning Dangers: Keeping Kids Safe Near Water