Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

You may be asking yourself: why is this guy writing about drowning, when it’s freezing outside and we’re in the midst of snowstorms? Well, Spring Break will be here soon, and many families will opt for warmer climates where water sports are popular, and the hazard of drowning will be very real. A recent article by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D. in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine addressed some of the common myths about drowning, and identified warning signs for parents whose children might be drowning before their very eyes. Drowning is the number two cause of accidental death in children, aged 15 and under, and approximately 750 children die by drowning every year. About 375 of these deaths will occur within 25 yards of a parent or other adult, and an adult will actually watch the child drown in some of these instances, having no idea it is happening.

Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. In fact, drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The yelling, splashing and waving that you see on television shows does not accurately reflect what happens when a person is in the course of drowning. This doesn’t mean that a person who is yelling for help and thrashing in the water isn’t in real trouble, because they are experiencing aquatic distress. However, individuals in this status are still capable of assisting in their own rescue, whereas individuals in more dire circumstances are incapable of aiding their own rescue.

Dr. Pia has identified the Instinctive Drowning Response, which identifies what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. He identified five elements:

1) Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing, and speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

2) Drowning people’s mouths alternatively 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 present down on the water surface.

4) 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.

Dr. Pia noted that sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they’re treading water and looking up at the deck. When in doubt, you should ask: Are you all right? If they can answer at all, they probably are. If you receive a blank stare in response, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. Parents should remember that children playing in the water make noise. If your children are playing in the water and they aren’t making noise, you should get to them and find out why.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit a warm climate during the coming Spring Break, remember that drowning doesn’t look like drowning!