With the start of summer comes that favorite pastime for the entire family, swimming. Day after day of relentless hot weather can be relieved by a cool dip in the pool, lake, river or ocean. Keeping your family safe in the water is a must. Accidents happen and drowning can happen in an instant.

Splashing and yelling for help, like they do on TV or in the movies, is not necessarily how drowning really looks. To quote an excerpt from Soundings, Drowning doesn’t look like drowning. “Dr. Pia, in a piece he wrote for 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 a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning folks aren’t on top of the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are on top of the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to increase their arms laterally and depress on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning folks to leverage their bodies in order that they will carry their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements.
  • Physiologically, drowning folks that are troubled on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and do voluntary movements like waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  • From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless saved by a trained lifesaver, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. (Source: On Scene magazine: Fall 2006 page 14)

This doesn’t mean that someone who is yelling for help and thrashing around, isn’t in real danger — they’re experiencing aquatic distress. Aquatic distress doesn’t last long, however in contrast to true drowning, these victims will still help in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, reach for throw rings, etc.”

It’s helpful to look for these different 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
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in one direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on their back
  • Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

Sometimes the swimmer may just look as if they are treading water while looking up at you. Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they answer, they probably are. If they come back with a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to help them. If kids are splashing and laughing, and then all of a sudden get quiet, you need to find out why.

The USA Swimming Foundation reports nearly 90 children younger than 15 drowned in a pool or spa from January through May 2018, and every year about 19 children drown during the July 4th holiday.

Consumer Product Safety Commission also reports:

  • Boys younger than 15 die from drowning at twice the rate as girls
  • Emergency departments treat about 6,400 pool and spa injuries in children younger than 15 every year

Teens and young adults typically do not follow water safety

While drowning deaths peak among one and two-year old’s, drownings continue to be the second leading cause of preventable death through age 15. (source: National Safety Council)

Swimmers should keep these safety precautions in mind:

  • Don’t go in the water unless you know how to swim; swim lessons are available for all ages. Wear a life preserver when boating.
  • Never swim alone
  • Learn CPR* and rescue techniques
  • Make sure the body of water matches your skill level; swimming in a pool is much different from swimming in a lake, river or the ocean, where more strength is needed to handle currents
  • If you do get caught in a current, don’t try to fight it; stay calm and float with it, or swim parallel to the shore until you can swim free
  • Swim in areas supervised by a lifeguard
  • Don’t push or jump on others
  • Don’t dive in unfamiliar areas
  • Never drink alcohol when swimming; alcohol is involved in about half of all male teen drownings, according to KidsHealth.org

Also, if your child has been in the pool for a period of time, they may have swallowed a significant amount of water. Fluid in the lungs is a bad thing — it can lead to pneumonitis, a non-infectious inflammation of lung tissue, caused by the irritating effects of something bad in the lungs.

What should you look for regarding fluid in the lungs? If your child, or anyone else, gets out of the water and has any symptoms similar to when something “goes down the wrong way,” or if they have persistent heavy coughing that doesn’t stop after a few minutes, or vomiting, you should take them to the ER immediately. Usually, these patients are treated and observed for four to six hours before they are released.

If someone coughs for a couple of minutes after getting out of the water and asks for something to eat or drink, it usually means they’re fine. But if you are concerned, a trip to the ER as a precaution, is your best bet.

*Follow your local Surepoint Emergency Center on social media for a schedule of FREE CPR classes offered.


Surepoint Emergency Center  is a modern emergency medical facility open 24/7. As an alternative to the traditional hospital ER experience, we offer convenience and minimal wait time, along with highly trained emergency medical staff and state-of-the-art equipment.

Our top priority is bringing high quality emergency care, quickly and easily to your family. We are committed to making patients feel better faster in a comforting and compassionate environment.

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