Rivera, 33, reportedly saved her 4-year-old son before she disappeared beneath the water.

By Korin Miller
July 15, 2020

The story behind former Glee star Naya Rivera’s death is hard to hear: According to reports, the 33-year-old went boating and swimming in California's Lake Piru with her 4-year-old son on July 8. It’s unclear exactly what happened next, but Rivera’s son told authorities that his mom helped him back onto the boat before she disappeared beneath the water.

Rivera was officially declared dead on July 13—five days after she first went missing. "We believe that she mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said in a news conference earlier this week, per People.

An autopsy issued by the Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office determined that Rivera died of an accidental drowning. "The autopsy findings are consistent with a drowning and the condition of the body is consistent with the time that she was submerged. No traumatic injuries or disease processes were identified at autopsy," the office said in a press release given to Health.

Accidental drownings are terrifying, and they happen more than you’d think. About 10 people die from unintentional drowning a day and drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But what exactly happens when someone drowns accidentally? Here’s what you need to know.

How does an accidental drowning happen?

There are a few things that happen to the body during an accidental drowning. “Accidental drowning begins with respiratory impairment as the person's airway goes below the surface of the liquid or water splashes over the face,” Nicholas Kman, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. “The lack of being able to breathe oxygen results in profound hypoxemia or lack of oxygen in the blood, resulting from asphyxia.”

Asphyxia, which is a medical term for suffocation, impacts all areas of the body, not just the lungs, Dr. Kman says. “When the body does not get oxygen, the victim will eventually lose consciousness and stop breathing,” he explains. “The heart rate initially rises but, as the heart is starved of oxygen, it slows and eventually stops beating.”

How long does it take for someone to drown?

It depends on the person and their fitness level, Dr. Kman says. But in general, people can only voluntarily hold their breath for a minute or so. “At that point, our reflexes kick in and we try to take a breath,” Dr. Kman says. “This causes water to enter the lungs.”

At that point, you end up having what’s known as a laryngospasm, which is a spasm of the vocal cords that makes it difficult to speak or breathe, Erin Muckey, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Rutgers University Hospital, tells Health. “You then pass out because you don’t get oxygen to your brain,” she says.

The lack of oxygen impacts all organ systems in the body. “Essentially, every organ system is failing,” Dr. Muckey says. People can die within four to six minutes, Dr. Kman says.

Is drowning always fatal?

Not always—there are instances of nonfatal drownings, per the CDC, and when a person can be rescued quickly, survival is “certainly possible,” Dr. Kman says. “Time is of the essence any time the body is starved of oxygen. Areas that are patrolled by lifeguards typically have good outcomes.”

But people can suffer complications, even if they are rescued. The CDC says that more than 50% of nonfatal drowning victims treated in emergency departments require hospitalization or transfer for further care for injuries like severe brain damage that can lead to long-term disabilities like memory problems, learning disabilities, and being in a vegetative state.

The subject of drowning is distressing, but David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Health that these occurrences are largely preventable. Doing things like wearing a life jacket in unfamiliar waters—even if you can swim—avoiding alcohol, swimming with a buddy, and keeping a close eye on children around the water can help lower the risk, he says.

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