Do you know the signs of drowning?

More adults die every year from drowning than children. Know the signs of drowning and what you can do to help save a life.

You’re out with friends having fun at the pool, lake or quarry. Everyone is having a great time, but suddenly one of your friends becomes very quiet in the water. Is he not having fun? Is he tired or just relaxing in the water? It could be any of these, but it also be one of the signs of drowning.

Unlike what you see in the movies or on TV, drowning people are generally unable to splash and yell. Instead, they are unusually quiet, often appearing to be relaxed, floating or treading water.

10 warning signs of drowning

Watch for these signs of drowning:

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

A lot of media attention is focused on drowning in children because it is the leading cause of injury-related death among 1- to 4-year-olds. But the number of adult drowning victims is even higher.

In the U.S., 10 adults older than age 20 drown every day. That’s 3,684 people annually, according to the 2014 Global Report on Drowning published by the World Health Organization.

How to save someone who’s drowning

1. Tell someone to call 911, and yell to bystanders for help.
2. Talk to the victim and tell them to stay calm, keep their arms down, relax and try to float. The most important thing is for them to keep their mouth and nose above the water.
3. Reach-throw-tow-go.

  • Reach or throw a floatation device to the person and tell the person to grab on. Only reach for the person with your hand as a last resort. If you don’t have a floatation device, find something you can put between yourself and the victim, such as a tree branch, broomstick or towel.
  • Tow, or pull, the person to safety from the edge of the water by lying down to get your center of gravity low and to lessen the risk of being pulled into the water.
  • For someone who is farther away, you can go to the victim with the floatation device and then tow them to safety — but only if you are a strong swimmer. In a lake or other body of water, it is safest to take a boat to the victim.

What if the victim is unconscious?
Call 911 immediately and then turn the person face up. Place a floatation device under the victim and then tow to safety before performing first aid such as CPR. Use extra caution if there is potential for a head or neck injury.

Prevent, prevent, prevent
Before you go swimming or boating, know who in the group is not able to swim or is not a strong swimmer, and determine what items can be used for a rescue. Distances across water look shorter than they actually are, so know your limits and surroundings.

If you’re boating or you do not know how to swim, be sure to wear a properly fitting life jacket at all times.

If you can’t swim, it’s never too late to learn. The YMCA of Greater Louisville and local aquatics centers offer classes. When you do take that plunge, never swim alone.

Finally, designate a responsible adult as a water watcher who can keep full attention on the water.


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