How to Recognize Drowning

CC BY 2.0. Virginia State Parks

It is much more silent and subtle than the movies make it out to be.

Summer is around the corner, which means that a lot of people will be spending more time in or around water. With that comes an increased risk of drowning. Roughly 1,000 American kids drown every year, making it the second leading cause of death for kids between 1 and 15.

It is crucial for parents and guardians to understand what drowning looks like, since our perception based on what we've seen in movies is often inaccurate. There is a tendency to think that drowning people flail wildly and scream for help, but Mario Vittone, writing for Soundings magazine, explains that that's not the case. Drowning doesn't look like drowning. People who thrash and yell are experiencing aquatic distress, which then leads to the Involuntary Drowning Response, the real killer.

The Involuntary Drowning Response is silent, which is what makes it so deadly. Drowning people cannot call for help. As Vittone explains, "The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs."

Their mouths alternately sink below the surface and reappear above the water, but they do not have enough time to call out; nor can they wave their hands or voluntarily control their arm movements.

"Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe."

Vittone recommends watching carefully for the following signs, at which point you have only 30 seconds to rescue the person:

Head low in the water
- Mouth at water level
- Head tilted back with mouth open
- Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus, or closed
- Hair over forehead or eyes
- Not using legs or appears to be climbing an invisible ladder
- Hyperventilating or gasping
- Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
- Trying to roll over onto the back

Take precautions to avoid such a tragedy arising. Parents magazine recommends staying focused on a kid who's in the water. This means not using your phone, not reading a book, not engaging in conversation with others around. Ensure that kids swim with a buddy who can call for help. Use life jackets (not water wings or other float toys) to protect children who cannot swim well.

Know how to communicate with a child in the water. You could have a sign that means "I'm OK," like divers who touch their fingers together overhead when they surface, or even just a thumbs-up. And if you're wondering if someone's doing OK, Vittone recommends calling out to them; if they don't answer, they could be drowning.