We all think we know what a drowning looks like: said victim will flail arms, call out for help, and create quite an overall ruckus, right? Nope. That is called Aquatic Distress. When you see this, you are seeing a person who indeed needs some saving but is not yet drowning. A person experiencing Aquatic Distress can call for help, grab onto lifesaving gear, and thrash around. Distress is a noisy process that sometime precedes a drowning – and sometimes does not.
You see, drowning is a silent process. When you are drowning, your body moves automatically into drowning mode and usually only a trained lifeguard is going to actually notice the signs of your distress. This is why so many children (nearly 10%) drown each year – right in front of their parents. As a parent, always remember that noisy children are not drowning. A quiet child is the true red flag for a drowning and, in all honesty, even turning your back for one minute (which we all seem to do) is too little vigilance because the Drowning Response only lasts from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. Dr. Francesco A. Pia has thoughtfully set out a description of the Instinctive Drowning Response or what a person looks like when drowning:
- The Person Does Not Call Out for Help. As a rule, a drowning person’s respiratory system is busy struggling to breathe. Speech is curtailed when a person is in any kind of respiratory distress.
- The Person’s Mouth Will Sink, Momentarily Reappear and Then Sink Again. When a drowning person’s mouth is momentarily above water, s/he will quickly exhale and then inhale as the mouth starts to sink below the water once again. It looks as if the person is bobbing up and down in the water – but will look low in the water.
- The Person Does Not Splash Around, Reach Out, or Wave For Help. Drowning people cannot wave for help. A drowning person will instinctively extend the arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface; as though trying to lift oneself up out of the water. This instinctive move aids the drowning person in bringing the mouth above the water in order to try to breathe.
- The Person Does Not Aid In the Rescue. A drowning person has lost the ability to control arm movements. The drowning person cannot wave for help, move toward a potential rescuer, or reach out to grab and hold onto rescue equipment.
- The Person Remains Upright In the Water. You will not see any leg movement from a drowning person. Only the arms are moving as the head bobs low; mouth submerged in the water.
This is why parents are told to never turn their backs on a child in the water – even for a minute. One minute is too long and drowning is not always preceded by the thrashing and calls for help seen in Aquatic Distress. One parent noted that a drowning child looks like he is kind of doing a doggie paddle. Mario Vittone, an expert in water safety, provides a video of a person who is literally drowning so you can see what it actually looks like. (Spoiler: the person is saved by a lifeguard.) To provide even better safety, consider taking a Red Cross Swimmer Safety Course and remain ever vigilant of your children when they are in or near water. This way, all of your summer activities can remain safe and memorable. Mario Vittone also has a fabulous Facebook Page that is rich in information on water safety. Check it out.