How to Recognize That Someone Is Drowning

It’s often not obvious that a person is drowning. In reality, many people who get into trouble in the water usually lack the strength or time to shout, wave arms or do the usual things that you might think a drowning person would try to do to draw attention. Instead, an involuntary reaction known as the Instinctive Drowning Response kicks in to try and gain air and leverage for the drowning victim, but in a very quiet way that often goes unnoticed by those watching on. For the sake of your own family, friends and community, it’s useful to know how to spot a potentially drowning person in time.

Edit Steps

Understanding the Instinctive Drowning Response

  1. Wipe the Hollywood version of drowning from your memory bank. Television and movie portrayals of drowning tend to overplay the actions of the drowning person, showing shouting, arm waving, splashing and other active means for drawing attention. In reality, drowning happens quickly and often quietly, with most headlines about victims reading “companions/parents failed to notice”. The silent, fast and non-splashing reality of most drownings is due to the “Instinctive Drowning Response”, which causes a drowning person to focus solely on trying to breathe, leaving no time for calling out or arm waving. The person does not usually look as if he or she is drowning to onlookers, and sadly, this reality has resulted in people (especially children) drowning right in front of potential rescuers.
  2. Understand the Instinctive Drowning Response. This response was summarized by Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, PhD in their article “How to Recognize the Instinctive Drowning Response”.[1] The Instinctive Drowning Response will cause the following actions in a drowning person:
    • Breathing as quickly as possible whenever the mouth actually manages to go above water. This means there is no time to shout, only time to breathe as fast as possible. The breathing action takes precedence over any vocal ability.
    • The arms will extend to the sides, in an attempt to try and get above the water. Then the arms will actually press down, to try and gain lift up and out of the water for the mouth to breathe. This doesn’t leave time or energy for waving arms above the head.
    • A drowning person is not in control of his or her motions. The arms and the attempts to breathe are both involuntary actions to save the victim from drowning. This means that there is no time to think about voluntary actions to draw attention to the act of drowning. In fact, this even excludes the ability to voluntarily reach for a piece of rescue gear!
    • If the Instinctive Drowning Response takes over, the drowning person won’t kick to support their body. The body is upright in the water, and the arms are doing all the work to try and stay afloat. Within 20 to 60 seconds, the person will submerge if not rescued.
      Print this image out and take it on vacation; teach everyone on your vacation these signs while in the car/plane/bus on the way to your destination.

      Print this image out and take it on vacation; teach everyone on your vacation these signs while in the car/plane/bus on the way to your destination.

Spotting a Drowning Person

  1. Be able to tell the difference between the Instinctive Drowning Response and Aquatic Distress. While still potentially life threatening and requiring a rescue response, aquatic distress is not involuntary. The person recognizes that he or she is in trouble, is worried about drowning, but at this stage still has the ability to make noise, grab rescue equipment if offered and will likely be kicking to stay afloat. This phase won’t last long but if you can get an object to the victim or get to the victim during this phase, the victim will likely be responsive to the help.

    • Aquatic distress may or may not be visible in children. The reality though, is that children tend to struggle less than adults and may even appear to be doing the “dog paddle”.[2] Don’t be lulled into expecting a child to make any response if he or she is drowning!
  2. Know how to spot a drowning person. Now that you understand the Instinctive Drowning Response, be aware of the following signs that may indicate a person is experiencing it when in the water (note, the depth does not matter, drowning can occur in shallow water as much as in deep water):
    • The victim’s head is constantly low in the water and his or her mouth stays at water level
    • The head may be tilted backward, with the mouth open
    • The eyes may be glassy, empty-looking and failing to focus; or, they may be closed
    • Hair may flop over the face, forehead, eyes (and the victim makes no attempt to remove it)
    • The victim fails to kick with or move their legs; he or she is vertical (not swimming or floating)
    • The victim may be breathing very quickly (hyperventilating) or gasping for air
    • Attempts to swim may be noticeable but the victim fails to get anywhere
    • The victim may try to roll over on his or her back
    • It may seem as if the person is trying to climb an invisible ladder–-this is the attempt to get above and out of the water
    • The victim is quiet––this is especially relevant to children as most children are noisy during water play
    • Be aware that toddlers/small children are top heavy and may lose their footing very quickly in shallow water (such as wading pool depth), which will cause them to float.[3]

Rescuing a Drowning Person

  1. If you are near a person showing any of the above signs, talk to them. Ask quickly: “Are you all right?” An answer will mean that they are probably okay, although they may be panicking and you can still go to their aid. No answer, a blank stare or continuation of any of the actions from the above list mean that you need to respond immediately to get them to safety, within 30 seconds.

    • Even if the person seems to be treading water and looking up at you, ask them if they are they okay. This upright state is a classic position prior to submerging!
    • Put safety before concerns about embarrassment, offense or inconvenience. It is better to seem overly cautious than to avoid asking a simple question.
  2. Rescue the drowning victim. For details on what to do to rescue a drowning person, see further How to save a drowning victim.

Edit Video

This video shows just how fast and quiet drowning really is.

Edit Tips

  • If you pursue water sports (diving, swimming, water skiing, sailing, etc.), have children under your care, teach or marshal water activities/events, or undertake activities (work or leisure) near or on water, you need to memorize the above signs of a drowning person. This knowledge can mean all the difference between the victim surviving or drowning, and there is a very small window of rescue of time, between 20 to 60 seconds once the person submerges.
  • Be aware of local conditions. Currents, rips, king tides, eddies, snags, etc., are all signs that the water is not safe to enter. If someone has entered with such conditions, help them to get to safety quickly if possible.
  • Be vigilant if you are rescuing people by directing them to get into water. In some situations, you may require people to get into water for their safety, such as when a boat is on fire or sinking, or for similar reasons. In this case, someone must be tasked with keeping an eye on those in the water, especially where shock, panic, injury or illness affects the swimmers. Always try to get life jackets onto people being rescued in such a situation.

Edit Warnings

  • Without fail, always investigate why a child (infant to teen ages) has gone quiet when near or in water. Most children make noise when playing in water, and going quiet (including failing to splash about) is a sign of danger.[4]
  • Fence your pool. If you have a backyard pool, keep it fenced so that children cannot wander in unattended. There is nothing to alert you to a toddler who wanders out the back door of the house while you’re inside and goes into the pool; the fence is your only safety measure.

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