Summertime Reminder: Drowning Does Not Look Like Drowning

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Most of us have this false understanding of what drowning actually looks like in real life – especially when it comes to kids. We imagine that a drowning child flails their arms and splashes in the water while screaming out loudly to their parents for help.

But in reality, an actual episode of drowning doesn’t look anything like the dramatic event that is programmed into our brains. In fact, it takes a very specialized understanding of drowning and a well-trained set of eyes to be able to identify when a swimmer is in trouble before it’s too late. Experts in water safety continually preach to parents and lifeguards that drowning is a very deceptive event and is perhaps most ironically characterized by silence.

How to Identify Drowning

The Instinctive Drowning Response, a phrase coined by Francesco Pia, Ph.D., is the natural human reaction that people employ when they perceive a risk of suffocating underwater.

In a recent article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, Dr. Pia explained that the Instinctive Drowning Response can be identified by the following characteristics:

  • “Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.”
     
  • “Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.”
     
  • “Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.”
     
  • “Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.”
     
  • “From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

A Different Kind of Trouble

Pia explained that these clarifications do not mean that a person who is yelling and flailing around in the water isn’t in any trouble in the water, but rather that they are experiencing aquatic distress. Aquatic distress occurs before the Instinctive Drowning Response kicks in, but it is not always present in all cases. The primary difference between someone in aquatic distress and the Instinctive Drowning Response is that a person in aquatic distress can still assist in their own rescue by grabbing lifelines and other rescue equipment.

The bottom line here is that the most common indication that a person is drowning may be the fact that they don’t look like they’re drowning. In fact, they may not appear to be doing much of anything, which is a sign that the Instinctive Drowning Response may have kicked in.

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Children and Drowning in the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death in children under the age of 15 in the United States.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in children in the United States, also according to the CDC. And of the 750 children who are statistically expected to drown throughout a given year, 375 of them (50 percent) will do so within 25 yards or less of their own parents or another adult.  

Pia says that some studies analyzing individual episodes of drowning have found that often enough the parent is even paying attention to the drowning victim without realizing that the child is in distress.

The CDC reports that a child’s parent will actually witness the child drowning in approximately 10 percent of drowning incidents nationwide, giving even more credence to the notion that drowning really doesn’t look like drowning – or at least not what most of us think drowning looks like.

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