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Surviving Cold-Water Drowning: The Mammalian Diving Reflex

drown-cracked-ice-feet"They're Not Dead Until They're Warm and Dead"

by Erik McLaughlin, M.D., M.P.H.

Rescuers are taught that drowning victims are never pronounced dead until they’re warm. There are cases of people, mostly children, who have be resuscitated after being submersed in cold water for frightening periods of time. Several instances include people being found without a pulse and receiving CPR. One boy, for example, survived 20 minutes under water and reportedly recovered after rehabilitation.

The mammalian diving reflex is what makes this survival possible. It’s a fantastically complex and poorly understood gift inherent to all mammals, including humans.


HOW DOES THE MAMMALIAN DIVING REFLEX WORK?

The reflex is triggered by splashes of cold water on the face or submersion of the face. Once the body detects an impending cold-water immersion, it attempts to thwart the cold and preserve blood flow to the brain and internal organs. The heart rate slows down, decreasing oxygen demand. And capillaries in the hands and feet begin to tighten, squeezing blood to the core of the body and brain, where it’s needed most.

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SO HOW LONG SHOULD YOU PERFORM CPR ON A DROWNING VICTIM?

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Because of this reflex, trained rescuers know to continue CPR until the body has reached room temperature and even for longer.


ERIK MCLAUGHLIN, M.D., M.P.H.,
is a family-doctor resident in Chicago and former EMT/firefighter. He runs the travel health Web site www.AdventureHealthClinic.com.


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Last updated and/or approved: November 2010.
Original article appeared in July/August 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of July/August 2009. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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Be a Hero - Save Lives
written by Jeffrey Dobkin , February 21, 2011

We advocate use of the Mammalian Diving Reflex to delay anoxic brain injury in heart attack victims. Using the Dobkin Technique of triggering this reflex by applying a cold, wet compress to the face of the victim, brain damage can be delayed by up to an hour – giving emergency medical responders additional time to arrive at a distant site before brain damage starts to occur. Please see our site (www.BrainInjuryFoundation.org) for our full 30-second explanation of how to trigger this reflex and buy time to prevent brain injury in cardiac arrest victims. Be a hero – please pass this technique on. Thank you.
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