Signs of drowning

As a parent, maybe you know what it’s like to be lazing by a pool or lake, keeping an eye on your kids and soaking up the sun’s rays, when suddenly you hear yelling and splashing and what sounds like panicked voices. You quickly look for your child, only to find him or her jumping in the water and laughing.

Did you know that a drowning person usually is very quiet and does not splash in the water? A drowning person often appears to be relaxing by floating or treading water. They are unable to yell or splash because of a body response known as the “instinctive drowning response,” as defined by Frank Pia, a lifeguard and researcher.

The U.S. Coast Guard and American Red Cross use knowledge of the instinctive drowning response to train and certify lifeguards to spot drowning victims. According to Pia, a drowning person:

1. Is physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. The person must be able to breathe before speech is possible.

2. Will not be able to keep the mouth above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale and call out. The mouth will alternately rise above and sink below the water. The person will exhale and inhale quickly before the mouth sinks below the surface again.

3. Cannot wave for help. Instinct forces the arms down against the water’s surface in an attempt to lift the mouth out of the water to breathe.

4. Cannot voluntarily control arm movements. Physiologically, a drowning person 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. Remains upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, the person will be able to struggle on the surface of the water for only about 20 to 60 seconds before going under the water.

So if you are out by the water and you see someone acting in the following ways, you need to get help to them immediately:

  • Head low in the water with 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 in the water
  • 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


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