Drowning: Fresh Water vs. Salt Water

Even though three-quarters of our planet is covered in saltwater, 90% of drownings occur in freshwater. Why is that? We may think it’s because people are more likely to be swimming in a pool or lake than the ocean or beach, but there are actually hidden chemical factors at play.

Osmosis, a hidden danger

Freshwater is more similar in composition to our blood than saltwater is. Therefore, when freshwater is inhaled, osmosis causes it to pass into the bloodstream. This added water dilutes the blood and causes blood cells to burst, which subsequently results in organ failure. Even if the water is removed from your lungs quickly enough, the damage to your blood cells may be irreparable and can cause death hours after the incident.

Salt, the first lifeguard

You may not think so by looking at the salt shaker in your kitchen, but salt can actually prevent (or at least slow down) drownings. When saltwater is inhaled, the heavy salt concentration prevents the osmosis of water into the bloodstream, keeping your blood from becoming diluted. It also thickens your blood, so it takes considerably longer to drown. Although the salt causes stress on your circulatory system, drinking fresh water will quickly rehydrate you.

It is in fact “easier” to drown in a pool, which contains fresh, chlorinated water than to drown at the beach.

Drowning in Freshwater versus Saltwater
Drowning in freshwater is “easier” than drowning in saltwater.