How to Spot Someone Drowning

Contrary to what television and movies would have you believe, drowning tends to be a quiet, quick, and undramatic event. That is why it is so important for everyone to learn how to spot the signs of someone drowning. After all, it’s the leading cause of death in children ages 1-4, the second highest cause of death in children 15 and under, and the overall fifth highest cause of death by unintentional injury in the U.S.

Drowning Myths

Before we review how to spot someone drowning, let’s go over four common misconceptions:

  • A person who is drowning will yell for help. -- If someone is drowning, they are physiologically unable to call for help because you can’t talk if you are not able to breathe.
  • Someone who is drowning will wave their hands in the air. -- When you are drowning, you will instinctively try to push yourself up, pressing down on the surface of the water. This leaves no opportunity to wave for help.
  • The person who is drowning will assist in their own rescue. -- A person who is drowning is instinctively trying to stay alive. Therefore, they are unable to perform voluntary movements, like reaching for a person or a rescue device.
  • Drowning takes several minutes. -- It takes less than 60 seconds for an adult to drown, and a child can drown in just 20 seconds.

How to Spot Someone Drowning

The most common sign that someone is drowning is looking up while treading water. If you suspect someone could be in trouble, ask them. If they can answer you, they’re probably fine. If you don’t receive a response, get help immediately.

Here are 9 other signs to look for that could indicate that someone is drowning:

  1. Head tilted back with the mouth open
  2. Mouth at water level
  3. Eyes closed
  4. Eyes glassy, unable to focus
  5. Hair is over the person’s face
  6. Vertical position in the water, with no leg movement or appears to be climbing an invisible ladder (this is the “drowning position” and is why floaties are not safe for children).
  7. Hyperventilating or gasping
  8. Appears to be trying to swim but isn’t making progress
  9. Trying to roll onto their back unsuccessfully

Before you head to the pool, lake, or ocean this summer, familiarize yourself with what drowning looks like here.

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