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Do You Really Know What Drowning Looks Like?

Whether you are out boating, fishing, or swimming:  Even though summer has been slow to arrive this year in the Pacific Northwest, many of us might be ready to get a swim or two in before the ‘real’ rainy season starts back up again.

While you splash and play around the water, please be sure to watch other folks and especially kids, closely:  Drowning is the #2 cause of accidental death for children aged 15 and under (right after vehicle accidents).  About half of these children will drown within 25 feet of a parent or other adult.

The problem:  Drowning may look different than what we expect.

Many of us are under the impression that a drowning person would get our attention by splashing, coughing, waving, or calling for help.  And indeed, a person who shows all these signs is in very severe distress and in need of rescue.

Drowning, however, often happens very quietly. There is very little splashing, waving, or calling involved.

A person who is drowning experiences the Instinctive Drowning Response:  The body instinctually suppresses all secondary or overlaid functions – such as speaking, calling, or waving – to focus on the most basic need that is to breathe.  A drowning person barely has the time to exhale and inhale for a breath of air before their mouth is again submerged by water.  Calling for help takes a back seat to gasping for air; there is no capacity left for another function.

Similarly, a drowning person is also unable to control their arm movements.  The Instinctive Drowning Response reflex forces them to stretch their arms out laterally, pushing down on the surface of the water.  Drowning people are physically unable to wave, grab hold of, or hold on to a rescue device.

Often, people who are drowning are in the water vertically, without any support through kicks or leg movement.  Their struggle often lasts no more than 20 to 60 seconds – less than a minute – before they succumb to the water.

Therefore, don’t only pay attention to the verbal and physical signs of aquatic distress, but also look for swimmers who display these less obvious warning signs:

  • The head is low in the water, the mouth barely above the surface
  • Head is tilted back, mouth open
  • Eyes are closed or unable to focus
  • The person is attempting to swim, but not actually moving
  • Body is upright in the water with no obvious leg movement; sometimes it seems as if they were climbing an invisible ladder.

What can you do?  Most importantly – be aware!  If anything seems unusual, check.  Talk with the person in distress.  A person who is able to respond is likely to be able to assist in their rescue.

Be concerned when it gets quiet.  This is true especially for children:  Children make noise when they play.  If it gets quiet, go check. Quickly.





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