Summer Safety Series – Drowning
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. In this Summer Safety Series, we take a look at drowning.
summer, drowning, swimming

Photo by Erik Dungan on Unsplash

Splashing and yelling for help, as 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. 
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water.  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. 
  • 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 do voluntary movements like waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  •  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.”

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. When 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
    swimming, drowning

    Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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.
  • Never swim alone
  • Learn CPR* and rescue techniques
  • Make sure the body of water matches your skill level
  • If you do get caught in a current, don’t try to fight it; stay calm and float with it, or swim parallel
  • 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

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.

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. We hope this Summer Safety Series on Drowning has been helpful! 

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


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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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