Tub zero: A brief look at bath-related illnesses and fatalities

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an interest in all things bizarre and out of the ordinary. In previous blogs I have examined coital cephalagia (people that get headaches from having sex) and masturbatory cephalagia (people that get headaches from masturbation). It was while researching those articles that I came across a 2005 paper on ‘bath-related headaches’ (BRHs) by Dr. Mak and colleagues in the journal Cephalagia.

BRH is rare headache syndrome. They reported 13 case studies (six from their own case files collected over a seven-year period and seven from other reports in the medical literature). They reported that all the cases involved “Oriental women” aged 32 to 67 years (with an average age of 51 years). The cases were reported in females from Hong Kong (n=6), Taiwan (n=4) and Japan (n=3). All of the women reported severe headaches (lasting from 30 minutes to 30 hours) that were triggered by bathing or other activities involving contact with water. Typically, the onset of the headaches were “hyperacute” and were like ‘thunderclap’ headaches (a severe headache that takes seconds to minutes to reach maximum intensity). The paper reported that no underlying secondary causes were identified and that drug treatment was generally unsatisfactory (although use of the drug Nimodipine was reported to shorten the length of the headache in some cases). Unfortunately, the only way that such headaches could be prevented was to avoid bathing.

After reading this paper I looked for other papers relating to bath-related illnesses. A 2000 paper by Dr. S. Cerovac and Dr. A. Roberts reported on 57 cases of burns sustained by hot bath and shower water (in the journal Burns) over an eight-year period. None of the 57 cases died as a result of the burns. The authors worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital (in the UK) and they divided the cases into child (below the age of 16 years) and adult groups. Most of the children (n=39) were under the age of three years (83%), with two-fifths having superficial burns (41%). Most of these cases occurred due to what the authors described as “inadequate supervision” by the child’s parents (85%). Among the adult group, 83% of the adults were over 60 years of age with around 65% of them having “some form of psycho-motor disorder that predisposed to an accident which should have been anticipated”. The adult group had more extensive burns which resulted in eight deaths (out of 18 cases; 44%). They reported that the number of cases had been declining over the eight-year period but the study highlighted that fatal incidents could be caused by something as simple as bathing.


A 1995 study by Dr. J. Lavelle in the Annals of Emergency Medicine evaluated the risk factors associated with bathtub submersion injury and their relationship to child abuse and neglect over a 10-year period (1982-1992). They reported that there had been 21 patients treated for bathtub near-drownings (nine of which had subsequently died). Of these, two-thirds of the children (67%) had “historic and/or physical findings suspicious for abuse or neglect, including incompatible history for the injury, other physical injuries, previous child abuse reports, psychiatric history of the caretaker, and/or psychosocial concerns noted in the chart”. The mortality rate of 42% was significant. However, findings showed that no demographic characteristics identified at-risk children.

Perhaps the most common form of bathtub deaths are infant drownings. A paper by Dr. John Pearn and Dr. James Nixon examined the socio-demographic factors surrounding drowning accidents among children aged 0-15 years in a 1978 issue of Social Science & Medicine. Obviously this paper examined all drownings but did note that those that involved bathtub drownings occur “almost exclusively in lower social class homes” In a follow-up study specifically on bathtub drownings, Dr. Pearn and his colleagues reported the cases of seven bathtub drownings in the journal Pediatrics. All of the seven cases were infants in the US state of Hawaii. As with the previous paper, the authors reported that the families of the infant were typically of lower socioeconomic status but also added that the deaths had occurred when the father “had immediate care of the infant at the time of the accident”. In five of the cases, the drowned infant was being looked after by older sibling.

In 1985, Dr. Lawrence Budnick and Dr. D. Ross published a study on bathtub-related drownings in the USA in the American Journal of Public Health. They analysed information (1979-1981) on such deaths using data from the (i) National Center for Health Statistics and (ii) Consumer Product Safety Commission data. They reported 710 individuals had drowned in the bath during this period with an estimated mortality rate of 1.6 per million individuals per year. They reported an excess of deaths in the spring but this was not statistically significant. However, they did note that individuals “at the extremes of age were at greatest risk of death, with mortality rates of 5-6 per million per year”. Unsurprisingly, there was a frequent history of children below the age of five years being left unattended by parents. Amongst young to middle-aged adults, there was a frequent history of seizures or history of alcohol or drug use. Among more elderly individuals there was frequent evidence of having fallen in the bath.

Similarly, in 2006, Dr. G. Somers and colleagues carried out a 20-year review of bathtub drownings published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. The authors retrospectively retrospective reviewed US autopsy records over a 20-year period (1984–2003). They identified 18 cases of bathtub drownings (8 boys and 10 girls) aged 6 months to 70 months (average of 17 months) almost three-quarters aged under one year (72%). The factors leading to the death were reported as inadequate adult supervision (89%), cobathing (39%), the use of infant bath seats (17%), and coexistent medical disorders predisposing the child to the drowning episode (17%).

A paper by Dr. R. Rauchschwalbe and colleagues in a 1997 issue of Pediatrics examined the role of bathtub seats and rings as a primary cause of death in US infant drowning deaths (1983-1995). The paper reported 32 deaths by drowning involving bath seats/rings with the victims’ ages at the time of the death ranging from 5 to 15 months (average 8 months old). Nine in ten deaths was due to a “reported lapse in adult supervision”. The authors concluded that infant drownings associated with bath seats/rings are increasing in the US and that very young children “should never be left in the bathtub unsupervised, even for brief moments”.

A more recent 2004 study by Dr. R. Byard and Dr. T. Donald in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health examined the possible role of infant bathtub seats in drowning and near-drowning (1998-2003). The authors used files from the Forensic Science Centre and Child Protection Unit, Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide (Australia). In the six-year period, there were six cases of drowning in children aged under two years. They noted:

“One of these cases, a 7-month-old boy, had been left unattended for some time in an adult bath in a bathtub seat. He was found drowned, having submerged after slipping down and becoming trapped in the seat. Three near-drowning episodes occurred in children under the age of 2 years, including two boys aged 7 and 8 months, both of whom had been left for some time in adult baths in bath seats. Both were successfully resuscitated and treated in hospital…These cases demonstrate the vulnerability of infants to immersion incidents when left unattended in bathtubs”.

In a 1984 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Lawrence Budnick examined bathtub-related electrocutions in the USA (1979 to 1982). He reported that at least 95 Americans had been electrocuted in the bath and that the use of hair dryers in the bathroom had caused 60% of the deaths. It was also noted that two-thirds of the deaths had occurred during spring and winter, and that those under five years of age had the highest mortality rate.

A 2003 paper by Dr. N. Yoshioka and his colleagues in the journal Legal Medicine examined bathtub deaths in Japan. The authors claimed that approximately 100–120 cases of “sudden death in bathroom” are reported there every year and accounts for around “8–10% of the total number of what is considered unnatural deaths”. Most of the deaths occur in winter and 80% of cases involve the elderly and the authors described the deaths as “baffling” as the autopsies rarely locate the exact cause of death. By testing physiological changes 54 volunteers in both winter and summer, the authors reported that many heart conditions occurred during the winter months in their volunteers (e.g., cardiac arrhythmia including ventricular tachycardia, ventricular extrasystole, supraventricular extrasystole, and bradycardia) and that these conditions might lead to an increased risk for cardiac arrest while bathing.

Another possible reason for bathtub-related drownings is epileptic seizures while bathing. A paper by Dr. C. Ryan and Dr. G. examined drowning deaths among epileptics in a 1993 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The authors retrospectively reviewed deaths from drowning in Alberta (Canada) from 1981 to 1990. Of these drownings in Alberta (n=482), 5% (n=25) were directly related to epileptic seizures of which 60% (n=15) occurred while the individual was taking an unsupervised bath. The authors advised that all people with epilepsy should take showers (while sitting) instead of baths.

While most of these bath-related health issues and fatalities are rare, they do highlight the issue that accidents can happen anywhere and that in the bath can be a vulnerable location for infants left unattended or those with medical conditions that cause immobility.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Budnick, L.D. (1984). Bathtub-related electrocutions in the United States, 1979 to 1982. JAMA, 252(7), 918-920.

Budnick, L.D., & Ross, D.A. (1985). Bathtub-related drownings in the United States, 1979-81. American Journal of Public Health, 75(6), 630-633.

Byard, R. W., & Donald, T. (2004). Infant bath seats, drowning and near‐drowning. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 40(5‐6), 305-307.

Cerovac, S., & Roberts, A.H. (2000). Burns sustained by hot bath and shower water. Burns, 26(3), 251-259.

Lavelle, J. M., Shaw, K. N., Seidl, T., & Ludwig, S. (1995). Ten-year review of pediatric bathtub near-drownings: evaluation for child abuse and neglect. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 25(3), 344-348.

Mak, W., Tsang, K.L., Tsoi, T.H., Au Yeung, K.M., Chan, K.H., Cheng, T. S., … & Ho, S.L. (2005). Bath‐related headache. Cephalalgia, 25(3), 191-198.

Pearn, J. H., Brown, J., Wong, R., & Bart, R. (1979). Bathtub drownings: Report of seven cases. Pediatrics, 64(1), 68-70.

Nixon, J., & Pearn, J. (1978). An investigation of socio-demographic factors surrounding childhood drowning accidents. Social Science & Medicine. Part A: Medical Psychology & Medical Sociology, 12, 387-390.

Rauchschwalbe, R., Brenner, R.A., & Smith, G.S. (1997). The role of bathtub seats and rings in infant drowning deaths. Pediatrics, 100(4), e1.

Ryan, C. A., & Dowling, G. (1993). Drowning deaths in people with epilepsy. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal, 148(5), 781-784.

Somers, G. R., Chiasson, D. A., & Smith, C. R. (2006). Pediatric drowning: A 20-year review of autopsied cases: III. Bathtub drownings. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 27(2), 113-116.

Yoshioka, N., Chiba, T., Yamauchi, M., Monma, T., & Yoshizaki, K. (2003). Forensic consideration of death in the bathtub. Legal Medicine, 5, S375-S381.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on May 30, 2017, in Adolescence, Case Studies, Gender differences, Pain, Sex, Uncategorized, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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