Safe Summer Tips: 5 Ways Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

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Ahh, summer. The best season for tuning out, taking off, and having some much-needed fun!

And there’s definitely a lot to look forward to each summer: shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July; whole days spent at the beach, lake, or pool; hiking trails that were covered in snow just a few months ago. Unfortunately, a lot of these fun summer activities can take a dark turn if we don’t take the right steps to stay safe while doing them. That’s why, periodically over the next few months, HealingRadius will be here with Safe Summer Tips to help you get as much out of your summer fun as possible!


Safe Summer Tip #1: Know What Drowning Looks Like

We’ve seen it happen in tons of summer horror flicks, on TV shows, and maybe even in our own heads when the kids swim out just a tad too far: drowning people flailing, splashing about, and maybe even screaming for help as they’re about to literally be in over their heads. This is drowning, right?

Not exactly.

One of the first things I learned the summer I took rescue and CPR classes for my lifeguarding job at a local pool was to unlearn what drowning looks like. While it’s not at all uncommon for people to assume drowning looks like what’s described above, actual drownings are almost always quiet and happen right around even the most vigilant of watchers.


But What About Instincts?

Won’t people automatically kick and push and do everything they can to stay above water? Surely that causes a commotion?

Again, not exactly.

That’s what we call aquatic distress and it can be a sign of real trouble too. The main difference between it and drowning is that aquatic distress usually doesn’t last long. Also, with aquatic distress, the victim is able to assist in their own rescue and should be able to grab onto lifelines.

Drowning on the other hand…

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The Instinctive Drowning Response

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is a lifeguard known throughout his field for his research and training as well as developing the Pia carry, a widely used method for holding a drowning person’s head out of the water while swimming them to shore. He also coined the title “The Instinctive Drowning Response” to teach others what the body actually, instinctively goes through when drowning.

Now, hold on, cause we’re about to get real with some statistics:

To give you an idea of just how quiet it can be: drowning is the number two cause of accidental death in children 15 and under. Statistically, of the roughly 750 children who drown in the next year, at least 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or adult. And, according to the CDC, in 10% of these drownings, the parent or adult will be looking right at them and have no idea they’re drowning.

Super scary, right? But I swear, we’re doing this for you; if you know what to look for, you can help prevent any of your loved ones from drowning.


5 Ways Drowning Doesn’t Look Like You Think

In his Instinctive Drowning Response, Pia outlines five points that explain why drowning doesn’t look like what you’d expect:


  • Drowners are physiologically unable to call out for help. There are rare circumstances where someone may get a chance to shout before going under, but it’s unlikely. Our respiratory system is designed for breathing first, so speech is going to take a back seat when taking breaths becomes difficult.
  • Drowners’ mouths bob up and down in the water – which keeps them from being able to get enough air to call out for help. When their mouths are above the surface, they’re only just able to exhale and inhale quickly before going back under.
  • Drowners cannot wave for help. In these situations, our instincts tell us to extend our arms laterally, pressing down on the water’s surface. Positioned like this, people can leverage their bodies to lift their mouths out of the water to breath but are unable to wave to others.
  • Drowners cannot perform voluntary movements. It’s that ole fight-or-flight response kicking in again and the only option, in this case, is flight. So while your body focuses on trying to get you out of this situation the only way it can think to, you can’t perform any voluntary movements like waving or even swimming in the direction of a rescuer or reaching out for rescue equipment.
  • Drowners remain upright in the water. Through his research, Pia has found that while people’s bodies remain upright in the water when drowning, there’s no evidence of supporting kicks. And, unfortunately, people can only struggle like this for 20-60 seconds before becoming completely submerged.




We’ve covered a lot for our first Safe Summer Tip! But keep in mind that these tips aren’t meant to scare you but to prepare you! When you know the right signs to look for, you’re much more likely to prevent drowning from happening to a friend or loved one. And to put you at even more ease, we’ll send you off with a few more tips for staying safe in the water this summer:

  • Don’t swim at night, especially in dark or open water.
  • Don’t swim in areas you’re not familiar with. You’ll be much safer if you have an idea of the depth and any potential currents in the water.
  • Don’t drink and swim.
  • When possible, swim where there’s a trained lifeguard on duty.



So remember: stay safe but also have fun out there!


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