What Every Parent Ought to Know About Drowning

Do you ever wonder how its possible that a child could drown in a pool or lake when they are literally arms reach of their parents?

The reason why this is possible is that parents simply do not know what drowning looks like.

When most of us think about a drowning situation we tend to compare it to what we see on TV. The call for help, flailing arms, hysteria etc… The truth is that a real drowning episode is surprisingly the opposite.

I recently came across a very important article and felt the need to post it immediately.

According to an article written by Mario Vittone for Slate.com:

Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.

Dr. Francesco A. Pia, a water safety expert explains that most drowning people will have what he calls the Instinctive Drowning Response. In the 2006 Fall issue of the U.S Coast Guard’s On Scene journal, Dr. Pia together with Mario Vittone describe the characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response are as follows:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid, function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.

2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. 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.

4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Here is a video from Channel News 4 of what an actual drowning scene looks like:

Mario Vittone concludes his article by leaving us with practical ways to tell if someone is drowning:

  • Head low in the water, 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—vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

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3 Responses

  1. Samantha says:

    Very, very interesting article. I never thought this is what drowning looks like. We should all just be safe.

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