Drowning is the #2 cause of accidental death in the US for kids under 15 years old and all too often, people do not recognize it when it is happening, even if the child is only a few feet away.
Why? Because drowning doesn’t look like drowning.
It is silent, they do not wave for help and they are not floating face down (they remain vertical, head low in the water, mouth open).
In 50% of drowning cases, the parent or another adult is within 25 yards. And in 10% of children drowning, the adult is watching the child drown, unaware of what is truly occurring. Watch this very well done video in a 2013 Slate article.
The most important step in saving a drowning person’s life is recognizing that they are drowning!
What Does Drowning Look Like?
According to an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this:
“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.”
Signs of Drowning
- Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.
- Drowning people cannot wave for help. People will instinctively extend their arms to the sides and press down on the water’s surface.
- Drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Drowning people who are struggling simply can not perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
- From beginning to end of a drowning, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.
- Drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before going under.
Note: a person thrashing and yelling for help is in real trouble. They aren’t officially “drowning” but they have entered “Aquatic Distress”. This stage doesn’t last long–get to them quickly!
Signs of Drowning:
- Head low in the water, mouth at water level
- Head tilted back with mouth open
- Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
- Eyes closed
- Hair over forehead or eyes
- Not using legs—vertical
- Hyperventilating or gasping
- Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
- Trying to roll over on the back
- Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder
Probably the most important rule to remember is that children swimming in a pool make a lot of noise. If you see a child who looks very quiet, particularly with any of the above signs, just ask them, “Are you alright?” If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.
How Big is the Problem?
From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.
About 1 in 5 people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five have to go to the ER and these nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage with long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and even permanent vegetative states.
What YOU can do
- Supervise when in or around water.
- Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while in the bath and all children swimming or playing in or around water.
- Supervisors of preschool children should provide “touch supervision”, be close enough to reach the child at all times.
- Because drowning occurs quickly and quietly, adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn) while supervising children, even if lifeguards are present.
- Use the Buddy System. Always swim with a buddy. Select swimming sites that have lifeguards when possible.
- Learn to Swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision when children are in the water.
Learn Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could save someone’s life.
- Air-Filled or Foam Toys are not safety devices. Don’t use air-filled or foam toys, such as “water wings”, “noodles”, or inner-tubes, instead of life jackets. These toys are not life jackets and are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
- Avoid Alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating, or water skiing.
- Do not drink alcohol while supervising children.
- Don’t let swimmers hyperventilate before swimming underwater or try to hold their breath for long periods of time. This can cause them to pass out (sometimes called “shallow water blackout”) and drown.
- And if you have a home pool, these 2 additional tips:
- Install Four-Sided Fencing. Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children.
- Clear the Pool and Deck of Toys: so children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised.
- Red Cross can help you find local certification classes: Click here.
- Anne Arundel Community College Courses in CPR: Click here.