Objective: To describe characteristics of drowning by age group. Design: Retrospective review of the characteristics of drowning victims and their drowning incidents obtained from death certificates, medical examiner, pre-hospital, emergency department, and hospital records. Setting: Three counties in Western Washington state. Subjects: Residents who died (n=709) of unintentional drowning within the study region during 1980 through 1995. Outcomes: Age specific counts, proportions, and rates per million person years were estimated for and compared among six age groups. Results: Rates varied by age group: 0-4 (30.5), 5-14 (11.6), 15-19 (29.9), 20-34 (21.5), 35-64 (12.5), and 65 years or older (21.2). Among those 0-4 years, the proportions that drowned in pools, bathtubs, and open water were nearly equal. But from age 5-64 years, over 69% of deaths were in open water. Among those 65 years and older, the deaths were almost evenly divided between bathtub and open water; bathtub drowning rates were highest in this age group, 10.9. Pre-drowning activities were divided into boating, swimming, car passenger, bathing, and fell in while doing something else. Most (64/89, 76%) victims aged 0-4 years drowned while bathing or after falling in. Among those 15-19 years, most occurred while swimming (24/79, 34%) or boating (22/79, 31%). The drowning event was least often witnessed among those 0-4 years (10/36, 28%), and most often witnessed (44/58, 76%) among those 15-19 years. Medical care (pre-hospital, emergency department, or hospital) was most often involved in drownings of those 0-4 years (70/89, 79%) and least among those over 65 years (11/86, 13%). Conclusion: The characteristics of drowning episodes vary greatly by age. Different prevention strategies may be needed for different age groups.