“Help! Help, I’m drowning!”
That’s what most of us expect from a drowning person, along with splashing and waving arms. These are signs of “aquatic distress,” in which the person recognizes that they are in danger—but they are not yet drowning. Actual drowning is a much quieter process, and can happen within feet of other swimmers without them even noticing. In fact, a drowning person can appear so calm and quiet that we think they’re just fine!
How does drowning happen, and what are the real signs?
Drowning happens as a response to water coming in contact with the larynx, or voice box. After an initial gasp, the person holds his breath and the larynx goes into spasm. With no breathing occurring, the oxygen levels in the bloodstream quickly deplete and the body becomes highly acidic, which in turn causes cardiac arrest and a lack of sufficient oxygen to the brain. The victim may or may not aspirate water into their lungs, depending upon whether the larynx remains in spasm or relaxes, allowing water in.
Signs that should alert you to possible drowning:
- Head low in the water, with mouth at water level
- Head tilted back, mouth open (a child’s head may fall forward)
- Body vertical in the water
- Eyes glassy, unfocused, or closed
- Hair over eyes or face
- Hyperventilating, gasping, or not breathing
- Trying to swim but making no headway
- Trying to roll onto back
What’s happening to cause these signs?
In order to cry out for help, the victim must be able to take a deep breath and expel it through the voice box—and with the larynx in spasm, no calling or talking is possible. In the final stage of drowning, the victim has little or no voluntary use of their arms—they may appear to be pressing down on the water in order to lift his body above the surface. For this reason, they can’t reach out and grab a lifesaver, rope, or floating object even if it’s right beside them. Their body will be upright in the water, with little kicking or leg movement. Their mouth may be momentarily above the surface, but not long enough to exhale and inhale before going under again. This stage lasts from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.
What are the most dangerous conditions for drowning?
We think of deep water, a strong undertow, whirlpools, and heavy seas, but the fact is, drowning can occur in only a few inches of water, as with a child in a kiddie pool or bathtub or an unconscious person face-down in a puddle. Do not leave small children in any amount of water even for a minute or two! Make sure other responsible people with you also know the signs of drowning. Even good swimmers can drown; cramps, a sudden blackout or seizure, heart attack, or a simple aspiration of water from an unexpected wave can start the process. Be vigilant!