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Drowning: The Fast and Silent Killer

swimming and drowning

Summer is just around the corner and the weather is getting nice enough to send us to swimming pools, beaches and lakes. Are you prepared with knowing what drowning really looks like?

drowning water safety

While the American Red Cross recommends that you only swim in areas protected by lifeguards, it’s still up to all of us to play our part in keeping ourselves and other swimmers safe in any water environment. Parents should keep a watchful eye on children and all adults, whether in the pool or on the deck, should stay alert for signs of trouble.

It’s important to know that drowning is a fast and silent killer. Contrary to depictions in movies or TV, you likely won’t see a drowning swimmer shout or wave his or her arms.

In fact, according to retired Coast Guard rescue instructor Mario Vittone and researcher Dr. Francesco Pia, drowning people remain upright in the water and extend their arms and push downward in an effort to push themselves up for air. Because they are struggling to breathe, they can’t shout or speak. Unless rescued, a drowning person will last only 20 to 60 seconds before going under.

Learn to look for the signs of drowning. Alert a lifeguard if you see a swimmer exhibiting any of the following behaviors and if they cannot respond to “are you OK?”:

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  • Head tilted back with mouth open or head low in the water
  • Eyes closed, glassy, empty or unable to focus
  • Legs that are hanging vertically with no kicking
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Attempting to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over onto the back
  • Appearing to climb an invisible ladder; children may appear to be doing the dog-paddle

The swimmer who is still able to yell for help or thrash may be in the early stage of difficulty, but it is usually just a few seconds or minutes before they lose even these abilities.  They are in immediate danger of drowning and you should get them help immediately.

Remember: When in doubt, shout. Alerting a lifeguard may save a life.

Download SafeKids’ pool safety poster with reminders and 5 must-have survival skills.

Tell us in the comments: prior to reading this post, did you know what drowning really looked like?

Guest post: Dr. Quan is vice-chair of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and is a specialist in drowning, drowning prevention and resuscitation. She is an emergency attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

© amie durocher

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