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Water Safety: Learn the signs of drowning and how to save someone

July 06, 2021

As temperatures rise, you may be looking for fun ways to cool off and stay active. Water activities like swimming, diving, canoeing, boating, and water skiing, offer relief during these hot summer months. It’s important to keep safety in the front of our minds during recreational water activities.

“When we think of water safety, we generally think of swimming pools,” said Dr. Richard Romano, Emergency Department staff physician at Baystate Wing Hospital. “But there are many other places where water safety should be practiced. It’s important to remember that drowning can happen anywhere there is water, including swimming pools, ponds, and lakes and even in the presence of lifeguards.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every day, 11 people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, one in four are children ages 14 and under.


“Drowning is a quick and silent killer,” said Dr. Romano. “The majority of children who drown in swimming pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight for less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time of the drowning. In the time it takes to cross the room for a towel (10 seconds), a child in the bathtub can become submerged. In the time it takes to answer the phone (2 minutes), that child can lose consciousness. In the time it takes to sign for a package at your front door (4 to 6 minutes), a child submerged in the bathtub or pool can sustain permanent brain damage.”

Inflatable aids, such as water wings and tubes, are not substitutes for adult supervision. Swimming lessons are an important step, but they do not make a child 'drown-proof.' Teach children about the importance of always being with an adult and always swimming with a buddy.

Drowning can happen to anyone, regardless of age

Children are not the only ones that need to practice water safety, adolescents and adults do too. According to the CDC, drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death behind motor vehicle crashes for children ages 1–14.

“Young people who drown are often victims of their own misjudgment of their swimming ability,” said Dr. Romano. “They may view a river or a lake as a tempting means of cooling off in a hot spell, but fail to appreciate the harmful effects that the cold water can have on stamina and strength.”

Dr Richard Romano

Learning how to swim is important for folks of all ages. Those who don’t know how to swim can very easily find themselves in water over their heads with little time to call for help. They can submerge and drown very quickly.

Drinking alcohol and swimming can be a dangerous combination.

“Alcohol reduces body temperature and impairs swimming ability, balance, coordination, and judgment and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat,” said Dr. Romano.

How to tell if someone is drowning

It’s not always easy to tell if someone is drowning. They may look like they’re just splashing around and having fun. They may not necessarily yell for help or wave their arms.
Before someone actively starts drowning, there are warning signs.

USA Today outlines them:

  • If someone, especially a child, is holding onto a wall or a floating toy, they probably don’t have too much energy left in them for swimming.
  • Seeing someone by themselves is also not a good sign. This is especially true for a child who has floaties on – since that probably means they can’t swim well on their own.
  • If someone is treading water and not going anywhere, it probably means they’re tired. Even good swimmers can get tired.

Here are some things you may notice if someone is actively drowning:

  • Look at the person’s face: Do they look scared? Is their head tilted back – like they’re trying to make sure their face stays above water? Are they hyperventilating? If a person is breathing heavily, they may not have the ability to yell for help.
  • Look at the person’s body: Are they moving their arms downward in front of their body? Have they been floating face down for more than 30 seconds?

Not all drowning looks the same.

Look for people jumping into the pool. Those who may not know how to swim can start drowning immediately after going under the water.

What to do if you think you’re drowning

If you think you may be drowning, try not to panic.

Instead of trying to keep your whole head above water, tread water or try to float on your back. This will save a lot of energy. You only need to keep your nose or mouth above water to keep breathing.


The Red Cross lays out what to do in a drowning emergency:

1. Identify whether the person is drowning

Make sure you know the signs ahead of time.

Yell for help – making sure to look at specific people to help avoid the bystander effect.

2. Get the person out of the water without putting yourself in danger

  • If the victim is within throwing distance: Throw a floatable object to them. This includes a life jacket, kick board, or even an empty gallon jug.
  • If the victim is within reaching distance: Help them by extending something long, such as a rope, pole, ring buoy, or a tree branch.
  • If you must enter the water to assist someone: Take a flotation device large enough to carry two adults safely. Keep the device between you and the person in distress. Even a child can put an adult at risk in deep water.

3. Call 9-1-1

If there is someone with you, ask them to make the call.

If you’re by yourself, give the person CPR for two minutes and then call 9-1-1.

4. Start CPR

The emergency dispatcher can help guide you through CPR if you don’t know how to do it.

Learn how to give CPR.

Continue CPR until help arrives.


Dr. Romano gives some tips for keeping friends, family, and yourself safe in the water.

In addition to taking swimming lessons, you should:

Check your environment

  • Know the local weather conditions and forecast before swimming or boating.
  • Check the water temperature before swimming. Cold water can tax the body and make it difficult to swim well.
  • Have a pool fence.
  • Keep toys away from the pool. Toys can attract young children into the pool when they’re unsupervised.
  • Make sure pool-cleaning equipment, such as brushes and skimmers on long poles, don't come in contact with power lines.
  • Make sure the pool is treated with chlorine, which helps protect against E.Coli and other dangerous microorganisms.
  • Empty all buckets, containers and wading pools immediately after use. Store them upside-down and out of children’s reach.

Get ready to swim

  • Toddlers should wear proper swim diapers designed to contain urine and feces.
  • Never swim alone. Invite a friend or family member to swim with you or stay nearby.
  • Do not swim if you have been drinking or if you have taken medication that alters your medical status.

Prepare for an emergency

  • Keep an emergency phone nearby.
  • Learn how to perform CPR.