How to Know When Someone’s in Trouble in the Water

Summer is the season to take advantage of afternoons in the pool and vacations at the shore. But since we spend more time in the water than during other months of the year, it’s also important to brush up on how to stay safe while swimming.

We all know to watch out for warning signs of drowning – especially when we are with kids in the water. But there are a lot of misconceptions about what these red flags really look like. While we might expect splashing, waving, yelling or other dramatic calls for help, drowning actually strikes quickly and silently.

Mario Vittone, a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer, wrote a popular article in 2013 that outlines exactly what to look for to prevent drowning. It’s the second leading cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under; and it’s sobering to realize that in 10% of drowning cases, an adult will be watching, and have no idea what’s happening.

Here are some takeaways from Vittone’s article that will help keep you and your family safe in the water:

Drowning is undramatic.

In almost all circumstances, people who are drowning aren’t able to call out for help. When they can’t breathe, they also can’t speak. Their heads are low in the water, with their mouths alternately sinking below and reappearing on the surface. Instinct forces drowning people to extend their arms laterally and push down on the water’s surface – not allowing them to use their arms to wave for help.

Drowning is quick.

It’s essential to keep your eyes on children in the water at all times – and stay within easy reach – because drowning can happen before you realize there’s a problem. Even when a lifeguard is present, there’s no replacement for your undivided attention. Drowning people remain upright in the water, and can only struggle on the surface for about 20 to 60 seconds before becoming submerged.

When in doubt, check in.

Stay alert for other subtle signs of drowning:

  • Glassy, unfocused eyes (or closed eyes)
  • Head tilted back with an open mouth
  • Hair over the eyes or forehead
  • Gasping for air
  • Trying to roll over on the back, or trying to swim in one direction without making progress

Notice when your kids are playing and making noise, and when they’re not. If they get quiet, ask them if they’re OK. If they answer, they’re probably fine. If they don’t, get to them immediately.

Get more swim safety tips from our blog