What does drowning really look like?

With the summer in full swing, pools are open and people are seeking out that favorite quarry, lake, or swimming hole to escape the summer heat. Unfortunately, for some, a day at the lake can quickly turn tragic.

Each year, about 3,500 people drown in the United States. That's 10 deaths per day and that doesn't count thousands of others who experience non-fatal drowning injuries that leave them brain damaged or otherwise permanently impaired. For children ages one to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of death. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the children with the highest risk of drowning are boys from birth to age four and also male adolescents, related to how much they participate in risk-taking behaviors.

Most people have heard the messages about water safety: learn to swim, use lifejackets, don't drink alcohol, closely supervise children around water, make sure pools are properly fenced and locked. What many people don't understand is that people often drown very close to others, often within reach. According to statistics collected at New York pools, a third of drownings occurred with one to five other bathers present. How is that possible? Don't people notice that someone is drowning 10 feet from them? Why doesn't someone who is drowning call for help?

Research by Francesco Pia, a nationally known expert on drowning prevention, helps explain why. Movies and TV shows usually depict drowning victims as waving their arms and calling for help.

Real drowning is much quieter than that.

In a 2006 article for On Scene, the U.S. Coast Guard's search-and-rescue journal, Pia and Mario Vittone, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman and leading expert on hypothermia and drowning, explain that the human body's reaction to drowning is instinctual.

The brain of a person who is drowning goes on autopilot. In most cases, the person's brain can't engage in anything beyond what's called the Instinctive Drowning Response. This response can be easily recognized, but it's not what we expect. And it happens fast - usually in less than a minute.

Here's what to look for:

1) The person is unable to call for help: drowning people cannot call for help because their brains shut down speech to focus on breathing. People who are in distress and at risk of drowning may still be able to call for help. But when people drown, they do so silently.

2) Drowning people's mouths bob above and below the water. Their heads are low in the water. Their mouths are only above the water long enough to inhale and exhale quickly.

3) They cannot control their arm movements. Their instinct is to move their arms from side to side, pressing down on the water and trying to raise their mouths above the water. They cannot reach out to a rescuer, grab a life preserver, or wave for help. Sometimes they look like they are trying to swim, but they go nowhere.

4) Their bodies remain vertical in the water. They do not kick their legs to support themselves. They may attempt unsuccessfully to roll onto their backs or swim or look like they are trying to climb an invisible ladder.

Drowning is a serious risk for anyone around the water. It's even more so for young people, and people who cannot swim. Be safe this summer. Learn to and teach your kids to swim. Wear Coast Guard approved life jackets. Learn CPR, and never, ever, leave children unsupervised, even for a moment, around a pool or lake. If you see someone who looks like they are in trouble in the water, don't hesitate to call 9-1-1 for help. It could save a life.

For links to tips and videos about drowning, visit SVMC's website or find us on Facebook.

Dr. Michael Thwing is a pediatrician at SVMC Pediatrics. To schedule an appointment, call (802) 447-3930 in Bennington. Physician services are provided by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians. To learn more about SVMC Pediatrics, visit svhealthcare.org. "Health Matters" is a weekly column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.


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