By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Our pools, lakes, beaches, ponds and waterparks offer refreshing fun along with an oh-so-welcomed cooldown on hot days. And enjoying the water is a great way to spend time with family and friends (and get some exercise)—but as these water times arrive, so does the need for extra precaution!!
It’s a very sad fact that everyday 10 people die from unintentional drowning–and too that it is the second leading cause of unintentional injury related deaths to children under 14 years of age. And of those who survive, many receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries including severe brain damage. This may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., permanent vegetative state).
These facts are staggering – and heartbreaking!! While we do not want to think about the chances of tragedy striking while we enjoy our fun, it is vital to take safety precautions to ensure a healthy, happy and safe time in the water.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: Drowning and Water Safety
What is drowning?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as the “process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid.” This definition encompasses both fatal and non-fatal events. When water enters our lungs, it impedes the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Our lungs are meant to be sterile, meaning only air should enter—other elements are not welcome. And if these other elements enter, our body reacts with inflammation and swelling which further impairs air exchange.
Who is at risk for drowning?
Everyone–adults and children, men and women, expert swimmers and non-swimmers—can drown or have a submersion injury. No one is immune.
What are some important water safety tips?
- Supervision: Keep an undistracted, watchful eye (on both adults and children). Supervise your children at all times when near water—drowning can occur within a matter of seconds. And avoid potentially deadly distractions such as talking to someone, reading, eating, using the phone or walking away. During large gatherings, assign an adult and a backup to keep an eye on children in and near the water at all times.
Children can drown in just a few inches of water and deaths have been reported to occur from buckets of water, washing machines, bathtubs, and toilets, along with bodies of water—even with a lifeguard present. NEVER leave a young child alone even for a second in any area with water — or rely on an older sibling to supervise an infant when bathing. For younger kids, “touch supervision” is recommended, meaning that the supervising adult is close enough to reach the child at all times.
- Learn how to swim: Take swimming classes. While swimming lessons don’t necessarily prevent drowning and aren’t a substitute for adult supervision, formal swimming lessons have been shown to protect both adults and children from drowning by teaching them water safety and swimming skills.
- In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, researchers found that participation in formal swimming lessons was associated with a significant reduction (88%) in the risk of drowning in children aged 1 to 4 years old
- The American Red Cross reports while the majority (80%) of American adults say they can swim, only 56% were able to perform critical water safety skills that could save their life in the water. Further, of those who state they can swim, over half have never taken a formal lesson nor gained invaluable skills to decrease risk for drowning for themselves or others
- Don’t rely on life jackets, floaties, pool toys, as water safety—supervision is necessary!
- Buddy system. One out of three drowning deaths occur when someone is swimming alone –everyone should always swim with a buddy. Even highly skilled swimmers can get in trouble in the water — and a buddy can call for help or perform a rescue.
- Learn Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)—because seconds count. Data shows that when CPR is performed by bystanders, lives are saved and outcomes improved in drowning victims. And the quicker it is started, the better the outcome. CPR training is offered by local hospitals, fire departments, and various organizations. And, too, have your children learn this life-saving skill (children as young as 9 years old are learning).
- Never drink alcoholic beverages while swimming or engaging in recreational aquatic activities – or while supervising water activities.
Safety Tips: In a Pool, Spa, Lake, Pond or at the Beach
In addition to ensuring non-distracted supervision, here are some additional tips:
- A four-sided isolation fence that separates the pool area from the house and yard has been shown to significantly reduce a child’s risk of drowning by preventing access to the pool without a caregiver’s awareness. The CDC recommends that the fence should be at least 4 feet high and the gate should be self-closing, self-latching, and out of the reach of children
- Clear pools and decks of floats, balls, and other toys so that children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised
- Inflatable or portable pools should be emptied immediately after use
- When available, know where the nearest lifeguard is
- At the beach know what the surf conditions are; checking for warning flags and danger signs; swimming away from piers and pilings (waves can crash you into them); and avoiding being pressured into dangerous stints or horseplay
- Additionally, if caught in a current, avoid fighting or swimming against it—you can make it back to the shore by gradually swimming away from it.
- And, know your limits–you can get in trouble when you become too tired to swim; so make sure to get out of the water and rest
- Avoid chewing gum or eating while swimming as they can cause you to choke
- Get out of the water if you see lighting or hear thunder
- Refrain from horseplay such as dunking, hanging on someone, pushing or allowing anyone to hang on to you while in the water or on a diving board or slide
- And never enter a lake or pond head first (diving into shallow water can cause spinal cord injuries and drowning) – and avoid diving into the shallow end of a pool
- When boating — make sure to wear a U.S. Coast Guard Approved life jacket at all times; when approaching other vessels, stay seated; return to shore if a storm should arise; and never boat under the influence of alcohol
How to spot someone who is drowning
There is a misconception that drowning happens like it is depicted on television—cries for help, splashing. But in actuality, it presents with:
- Silence – they cannot call for help because they can’t even catch a breath
- Stillness – they are often nearly paralyzed in one position while they are struggling to surface or breathe. Sometimes they may flail their arms but if someone is seriously near-drowned they may not be moving at all.
- Facing downward – they are often faced into the water, their hair may be obstructing their face
- Unresponsive – they may appear dazed or spaced out
Actions to take if someone is drowning
- Get help immediately! CALL 911 or tell someone to call 911. If a lifeguard is on duty, alert them.
- If alone, remove the person from the water and place them on their back. Experts recommend approaching the person drowning from the back so they do not grab you and pull you under. And, too, if the water has currents—lake, river, ocean—wear a life jacket.
- Check vital signs—check for breathing by placing your ear next to the person’s mouth and nose and look to see if their chest is moving. If they are not breathing, check their pulse (for 10 seconds). If there is no pulse, start CPR.
Also, I encourage everyone who has a near-drowning or gets submersed in a body of water to seek medical assistance. At the very least, call your doctor or child’s pediatrician to inform them of what happened and determine if further evaluation is warranted, even if there are no symptoms. And if you do notice symptoms—shortness of breath, persistent coughing, fever, sleepiness, vomiting, altered mental state along with any listed within—get medical attention immediately, or call 911.
Water fun is at the top of a lot of our summertime “to do” lists but safety first!! Help protect yourself, your family and friends from becoming victims of unintentional drowning. Water safety is important at every age, so please share these tips with your loved ones.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.