Do You Know What Drowning Really Looks Like?

two children playing in a swimming pool

A couple weeks ago I published a blog post about swimming pool safety, and I wanted to follow up with a common misconception I recently read about: drowning doesn't look like drowning. Most of us have only seen someone "drowning" on TV, where the victim splashes violently, calls for help, and gasps for air. In reality, drowning is a tragically quiet event that often goes unnoticed (or unrealized) until it's too late.

It's shocking that the number 2 cause of death in children under 15 is drowning, but it's even more shocking that of the 750 children who will drown next year, half of them will drown less than 25 yards away from the supervising adult. Some of them will even drown as parents watch—a drowning victim may just appear to be silently treading water.

When someone is drowning or thinks they're drowning, their reactions may be different than you expect. Here's what to look for:

  • The victim's mouth will alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. You may be able to see the victim gasping or hyperventilating as they try to inhale quickly before sinking back down.
  • A victim's body will be upright with their arms laterally extended and pushing down on the water's surface, as if trying to push themselves up. Other than that, the victim will physically not be able to wave for help, move toward a rescuer, or grab rescue equipment—no matter how close.
  • A victim will not cry for help, or make any other audible noise for that matter. Our bodies prioritize breathing over speaking, so until breathing is fulfilled, a drowning victim won't make a sound.
  • A victim's eyes will be either empty and unfocused or closed. Or, the victim won't bother to move hair that's covering their eyes.

The best way to confirm if someone is drowning is to simply ask, "Are you okay?" If the victim can respond at all, they aren't drowning (though they may be in distress and need help). If the victim doesn't respond, get to them, and quickly—you might only have as little as 30 seconds.

Always pay special attention to young swimmers. Children make noise when they play in water: they splash, giggle, and even cry. If you can't hear your child, something may be wrong. And if a child is missing, always check the water first.

If you'll be in or around water this summer (that's all of us—drowning can even occur in bathtubs), make sure everyone in your family understands and practices water safety. Keeping your pool secure when you're not using it, following posted rules and safety tips, and knowing what to do in case of an emergency will help prevent swimming pool accidents and keep your summer safe.

"Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning." June 4, 2013.