How To Recognise Drowning

Post by: Dee White
25 July 2017

Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the world and the second most common cause in children ages 1 to 14 ( just behind motor vehicle accidents). This translates to about 372,000 cases of drowning deaths every year. Yet however anxious we are to prevent drowning accidents, it is often not obvious when a person is actually drowning. One survey, by a national safety group, found that 90 % of children who drowned did so while under the care of an adult or a teenager and in many cases this person had a momentary lapse in concentration. An alarming fact is that frequently those watching don’t know what to look out for, because very often drowning doesn’t look like drowning. 

Drowning doesn’t mean flailing arms and cries for help. The signs of drowning are often silent and subtle, but being aware of them can mean the difference between life and death. The way people react when they are in serious trouble in the water is known as the Instinctive Drowning Response and it is not what most people would expect:-

  • It’s subtle. Rather than wave and splash about, a drowning person usually spreads their arms and presses down on the water in an attempt to stay above the surface. It is impossible for them to raise their arms and wave to attract attention.
  • It’s quiet. They are unable to cry out and shout for attention. A drowning person will alternately dip below the surface of the water and briefly back up again. They are struggling so hard to inhale and exhale that calling for help is impossible.
  • It’s quick. Someone who is drowning will only have 20 to 60 seconds before succumbing and children are at the lower end of that time spectrum, so it is vital to recognise the danger signs and act quickly.

The signs of a child drowning are similar to those of adults, but there are some extra signals to look out for:-

  • Silence. Most children are noisy when playing in water. If your child is suddenly silent, be suspicious and check that they are safe.
  • Remember that children can drown in very small amounts of water. No amount of water is safe.
  • The drowning movements of a young child can actually look as if they’re doing the dog paddle, so be very alert and stay close by.

Of course you may see someone splashing, flailing and shouting for help, who is not just fooling around and does seriously need help. They are probably suffering from “aquatic distress”. They are not in such immediate danger of drowning and may be able to assist in their own rescue by grabbing lifelines or rings which are thrown to them. They need help before their situation gets much worse, but the time to really worry is when they go quiet. Then time is of the essence!

In brief, the 8 silent signs of drowning are these:

  1. They can’t call for help.
  2. They can’t wave for help.
  3. They remain upright in the water.
  4. Their eyes are glassy.
  5. They face may be hard to see.
  6. The head is low in the water.
  7. They are quiet.
  8. They don’t seem in distress.

Aiding a drowning victim

Having recognised the seemingly impossible and realised that you have a drowning person to deal with, how do you then act?

  • Time is of the essence and a quick response can minimise the risk of accidental drowning or brain damage from being underwater for too long.
  • Ask if they are ok and if you don’t get a response get yourself or a lifeguard or some other responsible person to the victim immediately if safe for you to do so.
  • Aid the victim to the best of your ability without putting your life in danger.
  • If conditions permit you might be able to swim to assist them or get someone who is more qualified than you.
  • If there is a trained or certified lifeguard in the area, notify them.
  • Search around for something to throw to the victim in case they are capable of grabbing hold of it. Better still, if the victim is near enough, try using a reaching assist with a lifeline. Find any type of device that a person can grab on to like a walking stick, a long tree branch. Keep your body low to the ground so the victim does not pull you into the water.
  • Alert emergency medical services to get help with the situation.
  • Err on the side of caution. If you are not sure whether someone is drowning then try to help them if you can. Better some embarrassment than a dead body!
  • Do not put your life in danger or anyone else’s. One potential fatality is bad enough without adding to it.
  • If the person is very active they might panic, making it hard to help them and difficult to avoid injury yourself. Try to approach them from behind and communicate with them, calming them down if possible. Hold them from behind, under their arms.
  • Remember that a panicking swimmer will probably grab at anything – including her rescuer and it doesn’t take much to pull someone down under the water. If you do have to approach your victim in the water try to take a floatation device with you.

The next step

Having pulled the person to safety and removed them from the water, other emergency measures will be necessary such as CPR, wrapping them in a towel to prevent shock and make sure that someone has called the emergency services. Both the victim and you yourself should be checked over by them.

Be aware of Dry or Delayed drowning

Children have been known to have died up to 24 hours after ingesting a small amount of water. This Dry or Delayed drowning, though relatively uncommon, can occur when any child is rescued from the water, so it is crucial to keep monitoring the child and look for symptoms.

  • Persistent tiredness or increased agitation when lying flat.
  • Coughing and pain in chest.
  • Paleness or a blue/greyish skin colour and sweaty skin.
  • Trouble with breathing or shallow or rapid breathing.
  • Changes in behaviour, such as forgetfulness.
  • Vomiting.

If Dry or Delayed drowning is suspected contact the emergency services immediately or take the child to hospital. If it is caught early enough it can be treated by giving oxygen – so act quickly.

Who can help? – it may be YOU

Many of our beaches employ lifeguards who are trained to deal with emergencies which happen on our shores. We also have Coastguards and NCI Lookout Stations which can be contacted and who will relay information to the most suitable of the emergency services. But out at sea, or in the remote coves around our shores, you may be the only person who can possibly give immediate help to a potentially drowning person.

A sobering thought – but all the more reason to be prepared and have the knowledge to recognise anyone in difficulty and to know what to do in the circumstances.

Hopefully such a situation will never arise – but you never know!