How to Spot Someone Who’s (Silently) Drowning

As you gear up for a summer of fun on the water, reading a blog post about drowning is probably not at the top of your “fun things to do” list. But it could be lifesaving.

The information below is a brief summary of an eye-opening, in-depth article by Mario Vittone.

First, a few sobering facts:

  • Drowning is the number two cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under.
  • Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.
  • In 10% of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Drowning looks different than you may think.

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., coined the term “Instinctive Drowning Response” to describe how people’s bodies react when they are drowning. Here are a few things that may surprise you:

DROWNING PEOPLE RARELY CALL OUT FOR HELP: A drowning person’s mouth is 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. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

DROWNING HAPPENS FAST: People can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

NOTE: If you DO see someone thrashing, yelling and waving for help, they are likely experiencing aquatic distress—which can briefly precede Instinctive Drowning Response. People in this stage can still grab a lifeline and help in their own rescue. Once a person has gone into Instinctive Drowning Response, however, they need to be rescued by a trained lifeguard.

10 signs that someone is drowning:

  1. Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  2. Head tilted back with mouth open
  3. Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  4. Eyes closed
  5. Hair over forehead or eyes
  6. Not using legs
  7. Hyperventilating or gasping
  8. Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  9. Trying to roll over onto the back
  10. Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

Watch this video to see what drowning really looks like: Recognize the Signs of Drowning

Be Safe This Summer! According to the CDC, two of the main factors that affect drowning risk are alcohol use and failure to wear life jackets.

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One Response to How to Spot Someone Who’s (Silently) Drowning

  1. Eric says:

    To whom it may concern, this was a very concise, but thorough video that has the potential to save many lives.

    Eric Prince FSO-DV USCG Auxiliary Unit

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