Drowning can happen to anyone

A young girl swims under water.

He was a good swimmer.  Even so, the Pennsylvania teenager drowned while snorkeling with classmates on a beach in Grenada. Tragedies like this are all too common.  In 2011, an estimated 359,000 people died worldwide from drowning, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all deaths.

Drowning, defined by the World Congress on Drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid,” kills more than 1,000 American children a year and is the second leading cause of accidental death. A child can drown in less than 1 inch of water and in 20 seconds, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Risk factors:

  • Age: peaks are 2 years and again at 16-18 years.
  • Sex: males 3 times more common than females.
  • Season: warm weather months (50% in May-August).
  • Location: 
  • young children: swimming pools and bathtubs.
  • teenagers: natural bodies of water like oceans, rivers or lakes.

Non-fatal drownings are much more common than fatal drownings. With a non-fatal drowning, a person may have survived the drowning but still… not be in the clear.

Post-immersion respiratory syndrome (“secondary drowning”) is when an individual survives a non-fatal drowning, but later dies due to lung damage from the aspirated (inhaled) water.  The lung damage prevents inhaled oxygen from entering the bloodstream. With “secondary drowning,” symptoms may be absent at first but emerge over the next 24 to 48 hours.  These may include vomiting, involuntary bowel movements, extreme tiredness, excitability, or difficulty breathing. So even if people do not appear to be sick right after non-fatal drownings, they should go to their doctors or an emergency room. Just 4 ounces of aspirated water is enough to harm the lungs!

Neurologic or brain damage depends on the amount of time a person was hypoxic (without oxygen).  Memory problems, learning disabilities or permanent loss of basic functioning can result.

What can we do to prevent drowning?

Learn to swim:

  • The AAP urges parents to enroll children ages 4 and older in swim lessons.
  • When entering water for the first time, enter feet first- don’t dive
  • Always swim where there are lifeguards as they may save your life.

Learn CPR. Parents, caregivers and pool owners (at the very least) should learn CPR.

Learn to recognize when a person is drowning. Here are some signs:

  • Unable to call out for help; a person must be able to breathe to be able to speak.
  • Head not above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale and call out for help.
  • Not able to wave for help; people in trouble push down on the water’s surface by extending their arms horizontally.
  • Body upright in the water with no sign of kicking or treading water; this can last only 20-60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Wear life jackets while boating. Most boating deaths are from drowning and almost 85 percent of those who drown are not wearing life jackets.   The AAP encourages parents to set a positive example and wear lifejackets. A study of boaters found that teens are 20 times more likely to wear life jackets when they see an adult wearing one.

Learn how to handle a rip current, the most hazardous water situation that causes over 100 people to drown a year  Look for narrow, muddy streaks in the ocean where there aren't any waves breaking. The real danger with rip currents is when people panic, thrash about and expend all of their energy leading to submersion. Swim out of the rip current- not against it or into land, by swimming parallel to the shore.

Lastly, learn from the headlines.  In 1981, actress Natalie Wood died at 43 years of age from drowning. She accidentally slipped and fell into water. Wood had drunk several glasses of wine and was intoxicated when she died. More recently, in 2012, Whitney Houston accidentally drowned in the bathtub.  She had been using cocaine.

No one is exempt from drowning when alcohol or drugs are on board. 

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »