Drowning is one of the most common dangers when you’re in the water. It happens when you get water — even a small amount — in your lungs. It’s a serious problem and can lead to death.
Drowning can happen anywhere, such as in a bathtub, swimming pool, lake, river, ocean — even in an innocent bucket of water. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning (meaning drowning not related to a boat) every day in the U.S. An additional 300 people drown every year in boating-related incidents. Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S.
Path to improved health
There are actions you can take to make it safer for you and your family to enjoy the water.
Learn to swim.
Formal swimming lessons teach proper swimming techniques. They can help you if you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation. If possible, enroll your children in formal swimming lessons. If you’re an adult that doesn’t know how to swim, sign up for adult swimming lessons. Ask your doctor about local swimming pools that offer lessons.
Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
CPR is a technique that helps someone breathe who isn’t breathing on their own. You may need to do CPR on someone if they’ve been saved from drowning. CPR classes are often offered for free at hospitals and fire departments. Ask your doctor for locations where you can take a class.
When children are in the bathtub, never leave the room. Young children can drown in as little as 1 inch of water. Always stay within an arm’s reach of them. That way you can quickly grab them if they accidently fall face down in the water.
If you’re with children at the swimming pool or other body of water, watch them closely. Don’t be distracted with other activities such as reading. Pay close attention to them, even if they’ve taken swimming lessons.
Use a life jacket.
Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket when around water. These safety devices are created to help keep your head above the water so you can breathe correctly. Life jackets come in many styles, sizes, and colors.
Don’t use “floaties,” “noodles,” and other air-filled devices as life jackets. They’re not designed to keep you above water at all times.
Get some help from lifeguards.
If possible, swim at areas that have lifeguards. He or she will be able to provide additional help in watching all swimmers. However, even if you’re at a location with a lifeguard, you need to stay aware and attentive.
Go with a friend.
If possible, always swim with a friend. You can watch out for each other while swimming.
Don’t drink alcohol when you’re going in or near the water. Alcohol can affect your balance and your ability to think clearly. This could cause you to fall or make a poor decision that could lead to trouble in the water.
Also, don’t drink alcohol if you’re watching children in the water.
Be weather aware.
If you’re swimming in a lake or ocean, be aware of the weather forecast. A sudden storm can make the water rough, making it hard to swim to safety.
If you’re at the ocean, check for warnings of rip currents. These are very fast currents that can pull you away from the shore. Because they’re strong currents, they’re difficult to swim out of to return to shore. If you find yourself in a rip current, swim parallel to the shore. Once you get out of the current, swim diagonally the rest of the way.
Put up a fence.
If you have a swimming pool at home, put a fence around it on all four sides. The fence should be at least 4 feet tall. Also, consider using self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward. All gate latches should be higher on the fence than a child can reach. Additionally, consider adding alarms to the gates that signal if a gate has been opened. You may also want to add a floating pool alarm that sounds when someone enters the water.
Things to consider
According to the CDC, the most common victims of drowning are children under 5 years old and people between 15-24 years old. Children under 1 year old most often drown in a bathtub, a bucket, or the toilet. Children between 1-5 years old usually drown in a swimming pool or hot tub. People between 15-24 often drown in natural bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers.
Also, more males than females drown. And you’re more likely to drown if you’re black.
What does drowning look like?
Unlike what you may have seen on TV or in the movies, people who are drowning often don’t splash around and yell for help. Instead, drowning can be a quiet, quick process. Once a person is in danger, he or she can drown in less than a minute.
When someone is drowning, their body’s instincts take over. The person will use all their strength to keep their head above water. Often that means their head will be tilted backward and their mouth will be open to get as much air as they can. They will usually keep their arms out at their sides to try to keep floating. Also, their body will typically be straight up and down in the water. Most times, they won’t kick as all their energy is going to staying above water.
Someone who is drowning will usually bob up and down in the water. Their head, especially their mouth, may go under water repeatedly, then come back above the water.
A drowning person typically doesn’t yell for help as all their energy goes in to keeping their head above water. Therefore, you need to pay attention to someone who is quiet in the water. It may be a sign they need help.
How to help someone who is drowning
If you see someone drowning, follow these steps.
- Stay calm.
- Yell out for someone to call 911.
- Check your surroundings. If you’re at a swimming pool, are there life preservers nearby? Is there something can throw out to the person to grab on to while you pull them to the side? If so, toss the item so it’s close enough for the victim to easily reach. Then pull them back to the side.
- If the person is far into the water, you may want to swim out to them to help. Only do this if you’re an expert swimmer. Come up behind the person and grab them under their arms. Kick with your legs to get them back to safety. However, be careful not to let the person grab you. In panic, he or she may pull you under water, too.
- Once the person is out of the water, begin CPR. Additionally, anyone who has almost drowned needs to see a doctor right away for an exam.
Questions for your doctor
- How old does my child need to be before I enroll him or her in swimming lessons?
- Where can I take adult swimming lessons?
- Where can I learn CPR?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.