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How to Tell if Someone is Drowning

By Deborah Ng

Around 4,000 people in the United States drown every year, making it the second largest unintentional injury killer of children between the ages of one and fourteen. Children under five and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 are most at risk, with males making up the majority of those numbers. One reason those numbers are so high might be because it can be difficult to know when someone is in distress in the water.

The signs of drowning aren't always apparent. Drowning can often look like someone is playing in the water. In fact, many people who are drowning aren't showing obvious signs of distress. They don't necessarily flail their arms or cry for help, like we see on television.

Recognizing the Signs of Drowning

Drowning is often silent. In many cases, the drowning person is trying to keep their mouth above the water so they can breathe. Rather than flailing about, their heads are bobbing in and out of the water as they gasp for air. Their arms may remain in the water or extended out from their bodies as they push up to try to keep their heads out of the water. Sometimes, they make movements like they're climbing a ladder. A drowning person likely has their head tilted back as they try and take in air and may attempt to roll on their back. 

Most people who are swimming move their hair out of their eyes so they can see. In contrast, drowning people often have hair in their faces, covering their eyes.  If a drowning person's eyes are open, they might be glossy or seem as if they're staring out into space.

A drowning person is often too busy working to stay above water to talk or yell. If you ask a drowning person if they are OK, you might not receive a response. Someone who is drowning may not be able to use their legs to kick. All their effort is going to their arms and keeping their head above water.

Drowning people typically exhibit the following signs, known as the "Instinctive Drowning Response:"

  • Vertical in the water with little leg movement
  • Head tilted back as they try to breathe
  • Gasping for air or hyperventilating
  • Head bobbing up and down in the water
  • Looking as if they're climbing a ladder
  • Mouth at the water level
  • Hair covering the face
  • Eyes closed or glossed over and unfocused
  • Attempting to roll on to their back
  • Weak swim stroke, or trying to swim but not covering any ground

Because a drowning person doesn't always look like they're in distress, lifeguards are trained to look for all of the "silent" signs. If no lifeguard is around, call 911. If you can safely pull the drowning person out of the water, do so immediately. Lay the person on a flat surface and administer CPR if they're having difficulty breathing. 

Staying Safe in the Water

Swimming is fun and a terrific way to exercise the body. Still, even experienced swimmers can find themselves in distress. With that in mind, it's a good idea for everyone to follow some basic swimming safety tips:

  • Know how to swim: Everyone who goes in a pool, lake, ocean, creek, or other body of water, should know how to swim. Even the most basic swimming lesson can save a life.
  • Swim with a buddy: Having a friend swim with you can keep you safe from harm or alert someone quickly during an emergency.
  • Know your limits: If you feel fatigued, cold, or that you're in too deep or out too far, it's time to come out of the water.
  • Don't swim unsupervised: Make sure a lifeguard is present when swimming in public areas. If at a pool, never swim alone. Children should never swim without an adult present.
  • Avoid alcohol: Many incidents of adult drowning happen after the person has been drinking. Avoid alcohol if you're going to be in the water.

Knowing how to prevent drowning and recognizing the signs of drowning may help save lives. Know your surroundings and pay attention to the people around you. Call for help if you suspect someone may be in distress.