Water-based activities such as swimming and bathing are usually safe, when risks are managed. However, environmental conditions or accidents can lead to submersion injuries or death by drowning. Some submersion injuries can have long-term effects, such as when the brain goes without oxygen for too long.

In 2019–20, drowning and submersion accidents resulted in:

545 hospitalisation cases

2.1 per 100,000 population

225 deaths

0.9 per 100,000 population

This represents 0.1% of injury hospitalisations and 2% of injury deaths.

Swimming pools were the most common location of drowning and submersion accidents that lead to hospitalisation, while natural bodies of water were the most common location for drowning deaths. Males were 3.3 times as likely to die from drowning as females. Children aged under 5 had the highest rate of hospitalisation.

This report summarises data on accidental drowning and submersion events. Intentional events are included under Self-harm injuries and suicide. Falling overboard from a watercraft is included under Transport accidents.

Locations where drowning and submersions occur

Swimming pools are the most common location of drowning and submersion accidents that lead to hospital admission (Table 1).

Table 1: Locations of drowning and submersion accidents which lead to hospitalisation, 2019–20

Location

Number

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Swimming pool (including following a fall into a pool) (W67–68)

171

31

0.7

Natural water (including following a fall into natural water) (W69–70)

138

25

0.5

Bathtub (including following a fall into a bathtub) (W65–66)

38

7

0.1

Other or unspecified (W73–74)

197

36

0.8

Total

544

100

2.1

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population, calculated using estimated resident population as at 31 December of the relevant year.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10-AM (11th edition) external cause codes (ACCD 2019).

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database

Natural bodies of water are the most common location of drowning and submersion accidents that lead to death (Table 2).

Table 2: Locations of drowning and submersion accidents which lead to death, 2019–20

Location

Number

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Natural water (including following a fall into natural water) (W69–70)

121

54

0.5

Swimming pool (including following a fall into a pool) (W67–68)

36

16

0.1

Bathtub (including following a fall into a bathtub) (W65–66)

13

6

0.1

Other, unspecified or elsewhere classified (W73–74, T75.1)

54

24

0.2

Total

224

100

0.9

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population, calculated using estimated resident population as at 31 December of the relevant year.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10 external cause codes (WHO 2011).

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database

For more detail, see Data tables B3–4 and E4–5.

Seasonality and COVID-19

Hospital admissions due to drowning and submersion exhibit a strong seasonal pattern, typically peaking over the warmer summer months and declining over winter.

The 2019–20 bushfire season saw extensive fires across Australia, particularly affecting coastal towns and areas in New South Wales and Victoria (AIHW 2021). Potentially as a result of this, drowning and submersion injuries during this period were considerably lower than in previous years.

In March 2020, the first lockdowns and social distancing measures associated with COVID-19 interrupted the usual activity of many Australians. The restrictions to movement and activity appeared to accelerate the decline in injuries from the 2019-20 summer peak into autumn, resulting in 35% fewer drowning and submersion admissions from March to May than the in same period of the previous year.

See the interactive COVID-19 display for data and further discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on hospital admissions.

Figure 1: Drowning and submersion hospitalisations by month, 2017–18 to 2019–20

Notes
1. Months have been standardised to 31 days.
2. A scale up factor has been applied to June admissions to account for cases not yet separated.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Trends over time

The age standardised rate of hospitalisations due to drowning and submersion in 2019–20 was 13% lower than the previous year. This decrease appears at least in part to have been driven by COVID-19 related restrictions.

Over the period from 2009–10 to 2016–17 there was an average annual increase of 0.5%. There is a break in the time series for hospitalisations between 2016–17 and 2017–18 due to a change in data collection methods (see the Technical notes for details).

For drowning deaths, the age-standardised rate for 2019–20 was 15% lower than a year earlier. The average annual decrease in rate between 2010–11 and 2019–20 was 5.0% (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Drowning and submersion hospitalisations and deaths, by sex, 2010–11 to 2019–20

The visualisation features 2 matching line graphs on separate tabs, 1 for hospitalisations and 1 for deaths. The 3 lines represent the trend for males, females and persons from 2010–11 to 2019–20. The reader can select to display rate per 100,000 population or number.

For more detail, see Data tables C1–7 and F1–4.

Variation by age and sex

Rates of hospitalisation and death due to drowning and submersion differ by age groups and sex (Figure 3). In 2019–20:

  • 64% of hospitalisations and 76% of deaths were for males
  • children aged 0–4 had the highest rate of hospitalisation
  • the age-standardised rates of hospitalisation were 2.8 cases per 100,000 males and 1.6 per 100,000 females
  • the age-standardised rates of death were 1.3 per 100,000 males and 0.4 per 100,000 females.

Figure 3: Drowning and submersion hospitalisations and deaths, by age group and sex, 2019–20

The visualisation features 2 matching column graphs on separate tabs, 1 for hospitalisations and 1 for deaths. The columns represent sex within 6 life-stage age groups. The reader can select to display either age-specific rate per 100,000 population or number. The default displays males and females and the reader can also select to display persons.

For more detail, see Data tables A1–3 and D1–3.

Severity

There are many ways that the severity, or seriousness, of an injury can be measured. Using available data, three measures of the severity of hospitalised injuries are:

  • number of days in hospital
  • time in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • time on a ventilator.

The average number of days in hospital for drowning and submersion injuries was less than the average for all hospitalised injuries, but the percentage of cases that included time in the ICU, and the percentage that involved continuous ventilatory support were among the highest of all injury causes (Table 3).

Table 3: Severity of drowning and submersion injury hospitalisations, 2019–20

 

Drowning and submersion

All injuries

Average number of days in hospital

2.6

4.5

% of cases with time in an ICU

9.0

2.4

% of cases involving continuous ventilatory support

8.1

1.4

Note: Average number of days in hospital (length of stay) includes admissions that are transfers from 1 hospital to another or transfers from 1 admitted care type to another within the same hospital, except where care involves rehabilitation procedures.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see data tables A12 and A13.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

In 2019–20, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there were 34 hospitalisations (Table 4) and 4 deaths due to drowning and submersion.

Table 4: Number and of drowning and submersion hospitalisations by sex, Indigenous Australians, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Hospitalisations

18

16

34

Source: AIHW National Hospital Mortality Database.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

In 2019–20, Indigenous Australians, compared with other Australians, after adjusting for difference in population age structure, were 1.3 times as likely to be hospitalised due to a drowning and submersion injury. Readers are advised to use these data with caution due to small numbers.

Deaths data are not compared here because of the small numbers.

For more detail, see Data tables A4–A6 and D4–D8.

Remoteness

In 2019–20, people living in Remote areas had higher age-standardised rates of hospitalisation due to drowning and submersion than people living in Major cities (Figure 5) (Data table A9). Rates of death are not compared here due to small numbers.

Figure 4: Drowning and submersion injury hospitalisations by remoteness and sex, 2019–20

The visualisation features a column graph for hospitalisations. The columns represent data for each of the 5 remoteness categories for males, females and persons. The reader can select to display age-standardised rate per 100,000 population or number.

For more detail, see Data tables A7–9 and D9–10.

For information on how statistics by remoteness are calculated, see the Technical notes.

More information

Defining injury hospitalisations and deaths: how injuries were counted

Technical notes: how the data were calculated

Data tables: download full data tables

Glossary