Drowning Survival

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Summer’s almost here, and with school done for the year, many of our nation’s families will be traveling on vacation to the beach, lake, or other waterfront areas. They will be at risk for injuries, and one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking is drowning.

According to a 2004 report from the World Health Organization, drowning is the 3rd leading cause of death from injury. From 2005-2009, there were an average of close to 4000 drownings annually in the United States. Non-fatal water submersion injuries are about five times greater; some of these involve brain damage that causes long-term effects.
Drowning is seen much more often in males, and the younger the person, the higher the rate of risk (ages 1-4 years highest). It’s also the second leading cause of death from injuries in children 1-14 years old, surpassed only by car wrecks.


There are a number of factors which increase the risk of drowning. They include:

Poor swimming ability: Simply put, if you can’t swim, your chances of drowning increase.
Poor supervision: Drowning can happen relatively quickly and without a lot of noise. Even the presence of lifeguards may not save you on the beach, and unsupervised small children could die even in the bathtub.
Location: Although home swimming pools are the most likely places that young children drown, most adult drowning events occur in natural, boating, or wilderness settings.
Barriers: Pool fences that separate the pool from the yard reduces a child’s risk of drowning by 83%.
Life jackets: 88% of boating deaths by drowning involve people who weren’t wearing life vests.
Alcohol: The majority of deaths by drowning in adolescents and adults involve impaired judgment and coordination caused by drinking.
Seizure Disorders: Drowning, often in the bathtub, is the most common cause of death by injury for those with a seizure disorder (epilepsy).


Here are some things you should know to keep your family safe from drowning:
Take Swimming lessons: Don’t go into swimming-depth water if you don’t know how to swim. Swimming lessons are provided by many municipalities throughout the country, even for very young children. So are CPR classes, which are very important when it comes to aiding drowning victims.

Keep strict supervision on minors: Children in the water should always be supervised by a responsible, sober adult. For preschool children, the adult should be close enough to touch the child and not involved in any other activity.
Utilize the “Buddy System”: Everyone, even adults, should always swim with another person or persons.
On the beach, beware rip currents: Know the meaning of flags on supervised beaches. High waves, discolored water, debris, and channels of water moving away from shore are signs of dangerous conditions. If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore until free, then diagonally towards the beach.
Foam or inflatable Toys don’t take the place of life jackets: Noodles and water wings aren’t acceptable as substitutes for life vests, especially on boating trips. Be firm about using the right equipment, even for adults.
Pool fencing saves lives: Four-sided fencing 4 feet high with a high latch is the safest way to avoid small children falling or jumping into the pool and getting into trouble. Don’t leave toys near the pool after swimming.
Be aware of the weather: Thundershowers often whip up the water with strong winds, increasing the risk of drowning.
• Be physically fit: Swimming involves exertion, so make sure you’re up to the challenge.
Don’t drink alcohol: Any water activity is more dangerous, both to you and children you supervise, if you’re drinking.
Don’t hyperventilate: Taking rapid deep breaths for a contest to see who can stay underwater longest may cause a blackout.
Use the shower, not the bathtub, if you suffer from a seizure disorder. The odds of drowning are much lower. Any swimming activity should be done only with one-on-one supervision.
In the wilderness, be wary of river crossings. Fast moving water may knock you off your feet, even if just a foot deep.


life preserver
At the beach or in the wilderness, you might encounter a distressed person in the water. Your first response will be to jump in and help, but remember that the hazards that are causing the problem are probably still there. Also, the person in question will likely be panicking and flailing around. To avoid injury and reduce the risk that you’ll become the next victim: Reach, Throw, Row, Go.

  • Reach out to the person with a stick or oar.
  • Throw the person a lifeline, life preserver, or other floating object.
  • Row out to the person in a canoe or other boat if available.
  • Go into the water only when there is no other option.


drowning chain

In circumstances where you encounter a person in trouble in the water:

• Shout for help.
• Remove the person from the water in a safe manner.
• In normal times, call Emergency Medical Services.
• Begin CPR, using both chest compressions and rescue breathing. Chest compressions alone are insufficient for drowning victims.
• If available, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) and assist in transport to a modern medical facility. Outcomes worsen significantly in an austere environment.

Joe Alton, MD

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