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Dr KK Aggarwal
Recipient of Padma Shri
Actor Sridevi died of accidental drowning in her hotel bath tub after losing consciousness, according to the forensic report by the Dubai govt. on Monday. However, the report, which carries the stamp of the "Ministry of Health UAE" and the director of preventive medicine, Dubai, Dr Sami Wadie, does not state the cause of unconsciousness.
Can accidental drowning occur medically? Yes. Medical conditions can cause accidental drowning. Seizure disorders, which can be first-onset episode, can cause accidental drowning. Alcohol and/or use of illicit drugs increases risk of accidental drowning as it may affect balance, coordination and judgment. Stroke, syncopal attack (heart attack) or undetected primary cardiac arrhythmia are other factors that can cause accidental drowning. A gasping patient with ventricular arrhythmia will end up with drowning.
If there are no signs of struggle, then ‘accidental drowning’ can be a medical opinion. It is up to the police to accept this opinion or find it as a case of ‘homicidal drowning’ and investigate any foul play.
Some salient facts on accidental drowning
Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death. A victim of drowning can be revived by cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with rescue breathing. Prolonged resuscitation, up to many hours, has been known to revive patients with hypothermia and cardiac arrest.
Antemortem drowning can be identified by the presence of fine, white, leathery, copious froth or foam tinged with blood at the mouth and nostrils (Froth is of lasting nature and large in quantity), cadaveric spasms in hands, diatoms in tissues from brain, liver and bone marrow of long bones, presence of water in stomach and intestines, voluminous water logged lungs along with fine froth in lungs and air passages.
A bathtub drowning is a major cause of death in a bathtub. The bathtub is the most common site of seizure-induced drowning; hence, patients with epilepsy should be advised to take showers instead of baths. Heart attack leading to syncope and subsequent falling in the tub can cause drowning. Besides the causes discussed above, mutations in the cardiac ryanodine receptor (RyR)-2 gene, which is associated with familial polymorphic VT in the absence of structural heart disease or QT prolongation, have been identified in some individuals with unexplained drowning. Concomitant trauma, paralysis, heart attack or hypothermia, which can lead to rapid exhaustion or cardiac arrhythmias are other factors for accidental drowning. Duration of submersion >5 minutes is the most critical factor.
Several studies have reported incidents of bath tub drowning with varying medical histories as follows:
- A total of 268 victims were found unconscious or dead during tub bathing. After postmortem examination, the manner of death was judged as natural cause in 191 (71.2%) and accidental drowning in 63 (23.5%) cases. Drowning water inhalation, which was confirmed in 72% of victims, was absent in the others. Whereas, inhalational findings were more frequent in victims with other backgrounds such as alcohol intake, mobility disturbance, and history of epilepsy (Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2013 Jun;34(2):164-8).
- In a series of 14 cases of suicide by drowning in the bath in the Bristol area, England between 1974 and 1996, six cases had evidence of concomitant alcohol or substance use. Seven cases had a past psychiatric history and a history of previous deliberate self-harm. Most drowned at home, face down, fully clothed (Med Sci Law. 1999 Oct;39(4):349-53).
- A retrospective review of 92 deaths in the bathtub in Maryland found 71.7% incidence of bathtub drowning; 28.3% were the absence of bathtub drowning. Three leading contributory causes of death were cardiovascular disease, drug/alcohol-related death, and seizure disorder in both groups More than triple overlapped drowning-related signs (history of recovery from the water, foam in the air way, watery fluid in the sphenoid sinuses, hyperinflated lungs and watery fluid in the stomach contents) could be beneficial for the diagnosis of a bathtub drowning. (Forensic Sci Int. 2015 Aug;253:64-70).
- In a retrospective analysis of 245 bathtub death cases between 1971 and 1988 carried out in the Institute of Legal Medicine in Hamburg, 66 cases proved to be natural deaths, 76 were classified as suicides, 39 as accidents and 13 as homicides, while 51 fatalities remained unclear with respect to one of these groups. About 50% of the victims were alcoholized. (Arch Kriminol. 1991 Jul-Aug;188(1-2):35-46).
Dr KK Aggarwal
Padma Shri AwardeeVice President CMAAOGroup Editor-in-Chief IJCP Publications
President Heart Care Foundation of India
Immediate Past National President IMA