If someone was drowning, would you know? Maybe … or maybe not. Drowning is not like what you see on TV or movies, yet that’s often the only reference people have for what it looks like.
“Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event,” said Melissa Luxton, MSN, RN, a trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator with Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.
“The waving, splashing and yelling that TV and movies prepare us to look for is rarely seen in real life,” Luxton said. “The instinctive drowning response (IDR) is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water, and it doesn’t look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.”
Drowning is the impairment of breathing while in the water, and it occurs quicker than you might notice. It’s entirely possible for someone to drown with people right next to them because they don’t know how to recognize the signs.
Important water safety facts and tips
Some safety issues are specific to seasons, but water safety and drowning safety is not just for summers spent by the pool, lake or ocean. Water safety is year-round. The truth is that most drownings are preventable, but you have to understand the facts and know how to prevent them from happening.
Here are important facts and tips to keep you and your family safe every day.
Who is most at risk for drowning?
Unintentional drownings account for nearly 4,000 deaths each year and it is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide.
The other important thing to note is that even if you’re the best swimmer in the world, no one is drown-proof. Drowning doesn’t discriminate. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following groups are at the highest risk for drowning:
Fatal drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14, but children ages 1 to 4 have the highest child drowning rates.
In children younger than age 5, most drowning fatalities happen in home pools or hot tubs—mostly pools owned by family, friends or relatives.
“After pools, bathtubs are the second leading location where children drown. However, buckets, bath seats, wells, septic tanks, decorative ponds and toilets are also potential drowning sources,” Luxton said. “Older kids, teens and young adults are more likely to drown in natural water, such as a pond or lake.”
Men and boys
Nearly 80% of those who die from drowning are male. Many factors might contribute to this, but statistics show that males are more likely to put themselves in dangerous water situations and engage in risky behaviors. They may swim outside of lifeguarded areas, forgo wearing a life jacket and are more likely to drink while swimming.
Some racial and ethnic groups
American Indian or Alaska Native and Black people ages 29 and younger are two times more likely to fatally drown, however disparities are highest among Black children.
“Black children ages 10 to 14 drown at higher rates than white children, most often in public pools,” Luxton said. “American Indian or Alaska Native people have the highest drowning death rates in natural water.”
People with certain medical conditions
People with seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, and other medical conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and heart conditions are at a higher risk for drowning.
“Drowning remains a leading cause of death for children with autism and accounts for approximately 90% of deaths associated with wandering or bolting by those age 14 and younger,” Luxton said.
10 tips to keep you and your family safe around water
1. Supervision is top priority with children.
Because drowning can be quick and quiet, children should have your full and undivided attention even if your child knows how to swim—this includes not looking at your phone, reading or consuming alcohol or drugs—when they are in or near water. This goes for water sources both indoors and outdoors.
Never leave a child alone in a bathtub and close and lock toilet lids. Be sure to empty buckets, inflatable pools and tubs of water immediately following use and store them upside down. It only takes a few inches of water for a child to drown.
Make sure to shut and lock access gates once swim time is over. If you’re visiting another home or familiar place, be proactive and learn about any potential risks.
And keep in mind, lifeguards at publich pools or water parks should only be considered an extra set of eyes, not the sole protection for your child. While these individuals are highly trained, they are responsible for watching many people at the same time and cannot provide the one-on-one attention necessary to keep kids safe.
2. Learn basic swimming and water safety skills.
Learning to swim can reduce the risk of drowning by 88% but remember, this doesn’t replace the need for adult supervision of children around water. Register your children for swim lessons that include water survival training, such as learning to float on their back until help arrives.
In addition, if you’re a parent, guardian or caregiver, get trained in CPR. Many organizations offer CPR training courses, both online and in-person. To find a CPR training near you, visit bannerhealth.com or cpr.heart.org.
Keep rescue equipment, a telephone and emergency numbers poolside, just in case.
3. Install barriers.
It’s advised that all homeowners install proper pool barriers to protect kids (and pets!) who may visit the home and anyone else who may be vulnerable to drowning. Luxton shared this advice:
“Construct and use a four-sided fence with self-closing or self-latching gates that fully encloses the pool and separates it from the house,” she said. “Remove all toys from the pool area that may attract anyone to the pool.”
4. Use the buddy system.
Never swim alone. Always bring someone with you and opt for swimming locations that have lifeguards, if possible. “The buddy system is especially helpful for people with seizure disorders or other medical conditions that increase their risk of drowning,” Luxton said.
5. Wear a life jacket.
Life jackets reduce the risk of drowning while boating for people of all ages and swimming abilities. Even if your child knows how to swim, have them wear a life jacket in and around natural bodies of water. Don’t rely on air-filled floaties, water wings or foam toys as these are NOT drowning prevention devices. This goes for you as well. If you find you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t hesitate to snap on one.
If you're on a boat with an engine, identify the engine exhaust location. If it's at the rear of the boat, do not let anyone near that area, including the swim platform or water around it.
6. Don’t drink and drown.
Alcohol and water don’t mix and can significantly increase your risk for drowning. Alcohol impairs your judgement, balance and coordination.
Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating or other water activities. Don’t drink alcohol while supervising children.
7. Know the risks of natural waters.
Lakes, rivers, oceans, canals and other natural waters have hidden hazards such as dangerous currents and undertows, rocks or vegetation and limited visibility. When swimming in unfamiliar waters, always enter the water feet first.
Check the forecast before you are in or near water and any local swim advisories. Local weather conditions can change quickly and cause dangerous flash floods, strong winds and thunderstorms with lightning strikes.
8. Take extra precautions for medical conditions.
If you or someone you’re with has a medical condition such as a seizure disorder or autism, ensure they have one-on-one supervision when in and around water.
“Consider taking showers rather than baths and wearing life jackets when out on the water,” Luxton said.
9. Consider the effects of medications.
Several medications, such as those used for anxiety and other mental health conditions, can impair your balance, coordination and judgment. Avoid swimming if you’re taking these medications.
10. Don’t hold your breath.
As a child, you may have played with friends to see who could hold their breath the longest underwater, but this is a very risky—and even deadly—game.
“Many people will take several large, forced breaths or a series of short, fast breaths before holding their breath underwater for a long period of time,” Luxton said. “This is called hyperventilating and can cause you to pass out and drown.”
Even the most experienced of swimmers and divers have drowned from this dangerous underwater breath-holding behavior.
Instead of holding your breath, consider a safer water activity.
Unintentional drownings are 100% preventable. Do what you can to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you.
For other safety tips, check out:
- First Aid Kit Essentials and Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves
- Summer Safety Tips: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy the Season
- Baby’s First Bath, Tips for Bathing a Newborn
Updated: Content in this article was updated on December 7, 2022.