On Air

Do You Really Know What Drowning Looks Like?

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(Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The sun beats down violently as families pour into neighborhood parks eager to cool off in crystal blue watering holes. Suddenly, a child struggles to remain above water, her hands flit feverishly about the air as cries for help escape her lips.

We all recognize this visual as drowning. Or is it? According to Slate, the actual act of drowning is quite different than what we’ve been conditioned to recognize from television and film. In actuality it’s the exact opposite.

When drowning, your respiratory system is impaired from being immersed in water and nature quickly takes over as your body fights for oxygen. There is very little splashing, no waving, no yelling — no calls for “help.” To fully wrap your head around just how modest drowning appears on the surface, consider that there have been cases where the adult present has actually watched the child drown, having no idea what is happening.

The drowning response has been described like this:

  1.  “Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. 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.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • 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—vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

Parents note that when children play in the water they are usually noisy. If your child ever goes silent be proactive about finding out why. Do so quickly because the struggle only lasts between 20 and 60 seconds.

Drowning is preventable. By implementing solid pool safety practices both you and the family can be more confident while fully enjoying your favorite summertime recreation.

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