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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH


Summer is here, which means that we’ll be enjoying pools, the ocean, and other opportunities to swim and cool off. This brings exercise and joy, but let’s remember that drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death for those under age 15 (car accidents are number one). What's more, nearly half of these deaths happen within 25 yards of an adult, and 10% of adults who witness those situations don’t even realize that the child is in danger. Would you know how to spot a drowning victim?

In Hollywood movies, drowning tends to occur with a lot of splashing and yelling. In real life, even with a lifeguard on duty, drowning can occur quickly and silently. We have to be able to breathe in order to call out for help, and our hands must be free in order to wave or even loudly splash. Remember that children in the water tend to make noise. Peace and quiet can be a very bad thing.

There are two phases of drowning. The first is aquatic distress, when the victim knows that they are in trouble and can wave or call for help. The next is the instinctive drowning response, when they can no longer maintain their airway. Often the head will be back, the eyes will be glassy, and they will be looking toward safety. The drowning person is vertical in the water, with minimal kicking and splashing down on the water with extended arms, trying to keep the head up. The head might bob above and below the surface of the water. A drowning death takes between three and four minutes, but no more than 30 to 60 seconds of that is struggling on top of the water.

If you spot someone in trouble, stay calm and act quickly. Call for help. If it is safe to get into the water, do so, but never put yourself at risk. If it’s not safe to enter the water, find something that the swimmer in distress can grab. This might be a flotation device, pole or branch, or a rope attached to a life ring or life jacket.

The most common causes of near-drowning and drowning include:

  • the inability to swim

  • panic in the water

  • leaving children unattended near bodies of water

  • leaving babies unattended for even a very short time in a bath tub

  • falling through the ice (we don’t worry too much about that here in Southern California)

  • alcohol consumption while swimming or on a boat

Drowning accidents are preventable. Learn to swim yourself and teach your children, or find a certified swimming instructor. According to the World Health Organization, a lapse in adult supervision is the single most important factor in child drowning deaths, and most kids who drown are under the age of four. At busy social events, it’s common for everyone to think that someone else is watching. Always be vigilant; someone needs to be a full time “water watcher;” nearby and attentive when children are in the water. This means that the responsible adult is not socializing, or talking or texting on the phone. Even the presence of a lifeguard may not be enough. For children who are not strong swimmers, the responsible adult should use “touch supervision,” in which they are close enough to reach the swimmer in an emergency. Even older children who are proficient swimmers should still swim with a buddy.

Take a first aid and CPR class. Never leave a child or weak swimmer unattended in the water. Absolutely never consume drugs or alcohol before going in the water. I love the ocean and I love to swim, and I urge you to enjoy this healthful and enjoyable activity.

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