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Signs of Drowning – It’s Not What You Expect


hand raised from water, sign of drowning

Chicago in the middle of summer is hot! And naturally, many of us are at the pool or playing in the water to stay cool. If you are like many parents, you are aware of the dangers of drowning and know to watch on your children when swimming – but do you know the signs of drowning?

Drowning is not a loud event. It does not involve a lot of splashing. It does not grab your attention as it’s happening. Drowning is silent. And if you don’t really know what to look for, you may realize it’s an emergency only when it’s too late.

Water Safety

It can take as little as 20 seconds for a child to drown – that is why water safety is so incredibly important. Drowning emergencies happen daily, all year round in tubs, pool, rivers, and oceans. It doesn’t take much to ensure everyone is safe, but it begins with knowledge. It starts with you.

Here are some ways to prevent drowning:

Water Smarts:

There are some precautions everyone should always take when around water, even when you aren’t swimming.

  1. Know your limitations and the limitations of your children. Ensure they understand to take breaks from swimming or go into shallow water when they get tired.
  2. Never swim alone
  3. Swim sober
  4. If swimming in natural water (like rivers and oceans) be aware of the risks of current, water temperature, and natural vegetations and animals.
  5. Wear U.S. Coast Gaurd approved life jackets while boating, regardless of swimming ability.
  6. Know when and how to call for help.
  7. Become CPR and first aid certified to be able to recognize an emergency and be able to perform life-saving measures before first responders arrive.

Swimming Ability:

Some skills are necessary to ensure you are comfortable and safe in the water. If you are not confident or are just learning to swim, consider taking swim lessons to improve your skills. Swim lessons are available to help children as young as 6 months to adult age learn to swim. Here are some skills you should know:

  1. Enter water that is above your head and be able to return to the surface
  2. Float or tread water for a minimum of 1 minute.
  3. Be able to rotate from back to stomach and spin around vertically in the water.
  4. Confidently swim at least 25 yards
  5. Safety exit the water.

Helping Others:

By being vigilant and helping others, you can help prevent an emergency or quickly respond should one occur.

  1. Pay close attention to children or weak swimmers when in or near water. If you are with a group of people, assign others to watch swimmers and rotate through. Ensure there is always someone watching those who are swimming.
  2. Know the signs that someone is drowning or struggling to swim. Continue reading if you do not know how to recognize drowning – it doesn’t look like it does in the movies!
  3. Know how to safely assist someone who is drowning – if you think you should just dive in and grab them, think again! Keep reading to learn why that isn’t your best option.
  4. Learn CPR and first aid. If you are in the Chicago area, contact us for your customized on-site CPR certification.

What Does Drowning Look Like?

Drowning doesn’t look you think it would – adults nearby did not recognize the victim was dying in 10% of drownings! If you are expecting someone who is drowning to make a lot of noise and splash around, you will be part of this unfortunate statistic.

It is important to recognize the signs of drowning. The Instinctive Drowning Response is what all individuals do when they are drowning, and here is why it is deceptively quiet.

  • In almost all drowning cases, the victim is unable to call out for help because our physiology requires breathing for speech to happen. If you cannot breathe, you cannot talk, let alone scream for help!
  • Also, the drowning victim cannot call out for help because their mouth bobs above and below the waterline as they are struggling to swim. Every time they surface, they inhale and exhale quickly, before they sink back below. There is no time and energy to yell out for help.
  • When someone is drowning, they instinctively extend their arms out and push down into the water surface to raise their body and mouth up and out of the water to breathe. They are doing everything they can to survive. Waving and splashing around for help is not an option when they are spending all the energy they have to survive.
  • When you are in danger, your automatic fight or flight response activates. Rational thinking and voluntary movements do not happen. Quick, automatic actions happen to get to safety alive. You need to be alert when going out to save someone who is drowning because they may panic and try to climb on top of you, submerging you underwater. They may not be able to reach out and grab rescue equipment thrown to them. They will not be able to move towards a rescuer. 
  • When someone is struggling in the water and is in the Instinctive Drowning Response, they can only fight on the water surface for 20 to 60 seconds before completely sinking, fully submerged underwater.
Signs of Drowning – It’s Not What You Expect

Aquatic distress is what you see in the movies- and yes, that person thrashing in the water and yelling for help is in real trouble! However, it is not the same as a true drowning. Those who can scream and thrash in the water can assist themselves in their own rescue by grabbing lifelines and throw rings. The Instinctive Drowning Response, true drowning, is silent and far more likely to result in death.

Here are the other signs of drowning that you need to look out for:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at the waterline
  • Head tilted back with mouth open near the water surface
  • Unable to focus and eyes look glassy and empty or closed
  • Not using their legs to kick and are vertical in the water
  • Gasping for air
  • Attempting to swim, but not making any progress or movement in a particular direction
  • Trying to roll over on their back
  • Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

What To Do In A Drowning Emergency

  1. If you see the signs of drowning and suspect someone is in danger, yell out for someone to call 911.
  2. Reach the victim with something, if you can, while keeping yourself in a safe position. Do not go out into dangerous water and be careful swimming out to the victim because they may inadvertently climb onto you to get air and drown you in the process.
  3. Throw the victim a flotation device or rope if you are unable to reach them safely. By throwing them an object, you can pull them to safety.
  4. If reaching or throwing a safety object is not viable, go out to them. If you believe the victim is in the Instinctive Drowning Response, going out to get them may be your option.
  5. Get the person out of the water and make sure someone has activated the emergency response system by calling 911.
  6. Check for breathing (no more than 10 seconds). Place your ear next to the victim’s mouth and nose to feel breath on your cheek and look to see if their chest is moving.
  7. If there is no breathing, start CPR. Push hard and fast in the center of the victim’s chest.
  8. If the victim spits up water and begins breathing on their own, roll them on their side (recovery position). Make sure they are safe until first responders arrive.

You may not have enough time to contemplate whether someone is in danger of drowning or not. Whenever you are unsure, call out to them and ask, “Are you ok?” If they can answer, they most likely are fine. If they return a blank stare and are showing other signs of drowning, you may have less than 30 seconds to get the victim to safety. Also, if they get quiet, especially children, get to them quickly and find out why.

Be Ready Today for Tomorrow’s Emergency

Emergencies don’t wait until your prepared for them! Learn how to respond to aquatic and other emergencies by taking the American Heart Association CPR and First Aid.

Contact Save-A-Life if you are interested in becoming certified or learning more about water safety– many of our instructors are certified for water rescue and we can customize your training to your needs. Let us help you save a life today!

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