What Are Signs of Drowning?

You’ve probably seen videos of lifeguards jumping in at a community swimming pool to rescue kids — when the pool was full and no one else noticed the child in trouble. It’s true: Drowning doesn’t look like drowning (at least not how it’s portrayed in the movies). Usually, there’s no big commotion and wildly splashing arms. Lifeguards are trained to recognize the signs of drowning. Luckily, as a parent, you can become informed so you’ll know what it looks like when someone is drowning, what to do when someone is drowning, how to stay safe while swimming, and what dry drowning is.

How to Recognize the Signs of Drowning

No Yelling

Think about it: You breathe and talk with the same part of your body. So, if you’re in distress and gasping for breath, do you really think your body is going to put a pause on breathing so you can yell and scream? Nope. When you’re drowning, you can’t scream if you can’t breathe. That’s why drowning is actually often silent.

No Frantic Waving

When you’re in deep water, what happens when you stop using your hands to swim or paddle and you raise them straight up? You start sinking. There’s no time for any frantic waving around for help when you’re drowning because you’re using all your energy — and your arms — just to stay above water.

Furious “Ladder” Kicking

It’s the body’s natural reflex to get UP and out of that water, so it looks like climbing a ladder…fruitlessly. When someone is trying their hardest to move in the water but just not getting anywhere, something’s probably wrong.

A Blank Stare 

When in distress, we shut out all surrounding distractions to focus on saving ourselves. If someone is drowning you’ll notice a blank or glassy stare even if everything else seems alright (or maybe even closed eyes).

Mouth At (or Below) Water Level

A person who is drowning will be bobbing dangerously closer and closer to having their mouth completely under the water.

Head Is Back & Mouth Is Open 

As someone gasps for air, they will likely tilt their head back as far as possible as they attempt to keep water away from their mouth. Their mouth may be wide open, or it may be closing and opening rapidly if they are swallowing water. 

What to Do When Someone May Be Drowning

Ask, “Are you okay?”. Wait for a verbal response.

Don’t just wait for a slight nod of the head. An actual verbal response means the person is able to get a breath (for now), but no sound is a sign of drowning.

Call 911.

You’re dealing with precious seconds here, and time is of the essence.

Throw out a floatation device.

Although a person drowning may not be able to actually grab it, someone in distress may be able to.

Grab a life jacket — and the person who is drowning.

You will be of no help if you find yourself drowning, too, so make sure you have a floatation device for yourself so the victim will not pull you under as well. Keep the victim’s head above water and head for safety.

What is Secondary Drowning?

As if worrying about your child drowning isn’t scary enough, you’ve probably also heard about something called “secondary drowning.” What exactly is secondary drowning? Fortunately it is uncommon, but secondary drowning is when water gets into the lungs (where it’s not supposed to be). So, if your child is in distress in the water and has to be pulled out for near-drowning, you should always make sure he or she receives adequate medical attention.

  • What if my child swallows water? We’ve all accidentally swallowed some water (or ate some fishes, as we say at Goldfish Swim School) at times while swimming, and most of the time there’s nothing to worry about. A quick cough and all is right.
  • When should I worry? It’s when the coughing is continuous, persistent and increasingly labored that you should seek immediate medical attention. Also, if your child is sleepier than usual or a little “foggy” after a near-drowning incident, call or visit your pediatrician right away.

What Does a Secondary Drowning Cough Sound Like?

It's fairly normal for a child or adult to sputter and cough briefly after swallowing some water. If this coughing goes away in a matter of a few minutes, then there is likely nothing to worry about. If, however, a cough persists for several hours or if it suddenly reappears several hours later, then seeking medical attention may be a good idea. 

The cough may not have any distinct sound that makes it unique. But if you notice that the cough is excessive or that it's accompanied by chest pain or fast breathing, it's probably time to check in with a doctor.  

How to Stay Safe While Swimming

  • Always swim with a buddy. No matter your age or skill level, always swim with at least one other person.
  • Have life-saving equipment nearby. That may mean life jackets, floatation devices, long poles in a pool, a first aid kit, and more.
  • Keep a phone nearby. You probably always have your phone nearby to be able to take pictures of your kids doing cute stuff while swimming — but you need to be ready to call 911 if needed, too.
  • Learn CPR and rescue breathing. Every second counts in an emergency, and you’ll be able to help until medical professionals arrive.
  • Know how to swim. Making sure your kids know how to swim is the best way to stay safe in the water! Even for kids who “know” how to swim, lessons are still beneficial for many reasons.

Learn to Swim at Goldfish Swim School

The best defense against drowning is learning how to swim properly! Have your kids learn this lifelong skill from instructors who use integrity, compassion and trust to teach kids ages 4 months and older how to swim (yes, your baby can start learning to swim before age 1!). Find the location nearest you. Sign up for one of our swim lesson levels today for a GOLDEN experience you can celebrate!

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