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Recognizing the Signs of Drowning

April 28, 2021

Drowning is the second-leading cause of injury-related deaths in children between 1 and 14 years old in the United States, and it is the third-leading cause of unintentional death worldwide.

Florida’s many pools, lakes and other bodies of water put it in the top five states for drowning-related injuries and deaths. But a child also can drown in shallow water. For example, a bucket filled with just a small amount of water can be a drowning hazard. The good news: Drowning is typically preventable by eliminating risks and staying alert.

Signs of Drowning

You may think someone who is drowning will be thrashing, splashing and yelling for help. But that’s not always the case. Their fear may cause them to lock their limbs, and when they’re swallowing water, screaming isn’t possible. Young children may be in a horizontal, facedown position, not making any sounds.

Look for these other concerning signs:

  • Excessive or unexpected coughing

  • Heavy, rapid breathing or gasping

  • Glassy eyes

  • Hair covering the eyes and forehead

  • Confusion

When children play in water, they’re usually laughing and making lots of noise. Sudden quiet is cause for concern.

Act Quickly

It’s essential to act quickly when rescuing a child from the water. Just a few moments can make a big difference. Most children who survive are discovered within two minutes. Here’s what to do:

  • Remove the child from the water immediately. Once the child is out of the water, check for breathing by placing your ear next to the child’s mouth and nose.

  • Quickly call for help. Prompt and efficient medical care is one of the most important factors in saving someone from drowning. The sooner the person gets care from a professional, the better the outcome. In serious cases, pediatric advanced life support (PALS) and aggressive resuscitation may be needed. If you are in doubt, be safe and err on the side of taking the child for medical evaluation at either the hospital or other health-care facility.

  • If there’s no pulse, start CPR until medical professionals arrive. Prioritize airflow to ensure oxygen is getting to the brain.

Tips To Keep Kids Safe

It’s important to educate family members about water safety, securing potential home hazards and being prepared for accidents.

  • Always supervise children. The most common reason children drown is lack of adequate adult supervision, whether while swimming or simply playing outside. Instances of children wandering off and finding their way into a neighbor’s pool are well-documented. Always keep an eye on children to avoid these dangers.

  • Teach children how to swim. Recent studies show that water survival skills training and swimming lessons can help reduce drowning risk for children from the ages of 1 to 4. The best classes involve parents to introduce and solidify good water safety habits.

  • Use lifejackets and floatation devices appropriately. Children should always wear life jackets when boating, and floatation devices may be helpful for young children in pools with close adult supervision. Avoid using floatation devices in the ocean and other natural bodies of water because children can be quickly carried away by waves or currents.

  • Enclose swimming pools and hot tubs with child-safe fencing and install anti-entrapment cover drains. Reduce the risk of drowning if a child unexpectedly ends up near the water with barriers made from strong fiberglass posts and strong mesh.

  • Talk to older children and teens about the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs with water activities. With older children, the drowning risk often lies in reckless behavior, often involving alcohol and drugs. These substances are linked to reckless behavior in boating and water sports, and they can even cause seizures in the water that can ultimately lead to drowning.

  • Mitigate risks of drowning in children with underlying medical problems, such as seizures. Children with epilepsy and other underlying medical conditions are at greater risk of drowning, both in bathtubs and in swimming pools. Parents and caregivers of children with epilepsy should always provide direct supervision around water.

  • Learn CPR. When drowning cannot be prevented, quick response by families or bystanders to facilitate airflow to the brain is critical until medical professionals arrive at the scene.

What Does “Drowning” Mean?

You may have heard the terms “near drowning,” “far drowning,” “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning.” These are not medical definitions and can cause confusion. “Drowning” is the only medically accepted classification, and doctors classify the different levels of drowning based on the outcome of the event — whether the patient lives, lives with permanent damage or does not survive.


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