Drowning: How Does It Feel? How Do I Not?

Photo Credit: not drowning by lavagirl66

You’ve probably held your breath for 30 seconds, maybe a full minute. Underwater, forced to hold it, you may last one to two minutes before your brain stem overrides logic and forces you to inhale.

It’s an interesting Catch-22–struggle to rise to the surface and potentially get some air, or don’t struggle, preserve the oxygen in your blood and muscles, and maybe your brain will live a little longer. Long enough for rescue.

If there is no hope of rescue could you bring yourself to breathe in? End it quickly?

I’ve always thought that if I had to drown, I’d like it to be because a monkey was holding my head underwater. I’d be able to look up and see him through the bubbles and think, “How did I get here?” Maybe laugh before inhaling.

Here’s a chance to educate yourself before you fall in some water or before you commit a fictional character to drowning.

There are Four Ways to Drown

  1. Wet Drowning: This is the form of death we most associate with drowning. Asphyxiation is caused by fluid in the lungs and accompanied by severe chest pain (naturally).
  2. Dry Drowning: This form of drowning occurs often when the victim is forced to reflexively inhale but the water does not enter the lungs. How? Another reflex causes the larynx to spasm when hit with water, closing the throat. Like choking yourself to death, underwater. Yikes.
  3. Secondary Drowning: This occurs when water has entered the lungs of a victim but then been expelled. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, causing irreversible brain damage and/or heart failure in a matter of hours to days.
  4. Immersion Syndrome: Basically a heart attack caused by the shock of being in water.

What Drowning Feels Like

Some people black out.

Some don’t completely black out. Semi-conscious blacking out may leave you with a sense as though you had already died and are nothing.

Inescapable panic: “I’m dying and it hurts and I am still conscious, should I breathe in?”

The panic is accompanied by flailing and fighting, then shock, then acceptance, and finally the realization that you’re dead.

If you drown in the ocean or a pool, it burns. The salt and chlorine in your nose and lungs is not a pleasant last experience. Freshwater isn’t much better.

What about hot or cold water? Another nifty reflex points to cold water being the better option for survival–the mammalian dive reflex.

The Mammalian Dive Reflex

Up to the age of six months, if you throw a baby in water (not recommended) their mammalian dive reflex is activated and they swim like its nothing. Older humans can train this reflex as well. It is used by fishermen with spears and business executives tapping into it for the resultant calm sensation before giving presentations.

The heart rate slows, the blood vessels constrict to focus blood on crucial organs like the heart and brain, and a blood change occurs that protects your organs from increased water pressure.

Cold water increases the amount of time the reflex can preserve your life, as does lower mass in the body. The mammalian dive reflex has saved the lives of a number of small children falling into icy rivers, including 21-month-old Gore Ottesen. Gore fell into an icy Colorado river at night in his pajamas. He was in the water for 25 minutes and resuscitated 50 minutes later, with no long-term negative effects. 50 minutes with no heartbeat.

Weddell seals can survive for 80 minutes by use of this reflex and can dive to 2,300 feet.

You’re not a seal, though, and your character probably isn’t either. How long could you last? If you train hard you may last ten minutes or longer. If you saturate your bloodstream with oxygen beforehand, you may last 20.

As Edwin Louis Cole said,

“You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”


If you fell in the water would you fight or inhale? How would you save a character from drowning? Tell me in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Drowning: How Does It Feel? How Do I Not?

Add yours

  1. I think if I were drowning, I’d probably hold on as long as I could. It’s going to be unpleasant either way, but that laryngeal spasm seems like too much! Plus, any bit of extra time could mean someone finds me. Only one way to find out for sure though, but I don’t want to find out!


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