Pulmonary oedema, pneumonia and mortality in submersion victims; a retrospective study in 125 patients



The identification of risk factors contributing to the development of pulmonary oedema, pneumonia and late mortality in submersion victims.


A retrospective study of 125 submersion victims.Setting: The medical intensive care unit in a university hospital.


Baseline examination on admission consisted of history, physical examination, arterial blood gas analysis and a chest radiograph. Patients were then classified into four groups: class I, baseline examination negative; class II, baseline examination positive, but mechanical ventilation not needed on admission; class III, mechanical ventilation required on admission; class IV, patients suffering form cardiopulmonary arrest. All patients who were not succesfully resuscitated or who had expired with-in 24 h after admission were excluded for determination of the risk of pulmonary oedema and pneumonia.


Class I patients did not develop pulmonary complications; neither pulmonary oedema nor pneumonia occurred in this group. In the remaining classes the incidence of pulmonary oedema was 72% and that of pneumonia, 14.7%. Stepwise logistic regression showed that pulmonary oedema was related to the type of water (seawater, ditch water, swimming pool) victims were submerged in and to the neurological state both at the time of rescue and on admission. The development of pneumonia was related to the use of mechanical ventilation (the risk was 52%). Pneumonia was not related to neurological state at the time of rescue or on admission, to body temperature on admission, to the prohylactic administration of antibiotics or to the use of corticosteroids. Mortality was high in class IV patients, but low in all other patients. Early mortality was 18.4% while late mortality was 5.6%.


There is no need to hospitalise submersion victims when there are no signs or symptoms of aspiration upon arrival in the emergency room. All other patients should be admitted to an intensive care unit. The risk of pneumonia is high when mechanical ventilation is necessary. Mortality is high in patients with circulatory arrest on admission, but low in all other patients.


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Correspondence to M. van Berkel.

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van Berkel, M., Bierens, J.J.L.M., Lie, R.L.K. et al. Pulmonary oedema, pneumonia and mortality in submersion victims; a retrospective study in 125 patients. Intensive Care Med 22, 101–107 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01720715

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Key words

  • Drowning
  • Near drowning
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary oedema
  • Mortality
  • Artificial respiration