Common Signs of Drowning Aren't What You'd Think


Summer is the time of year when many people will enjoy the water—at beautiful Michigan lakes, poolside, or out of state. However, many of us don’t realize that the signs that someone is drowning don’t usually involve gasping, flailing, or screaming for help. Rather, drowning is a silent killer that is difficult to spot if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for.

The Instinctive Drowning Response is what people instinctively do to avoid suffocation while drowning. Consequently, this response is very quiet—barely noticeable, in fact—a small percentage of parents will even watch their kids drown without even realizing what was happening before it’s too late.

Dr. Francesco A. Pia wrote an article, “It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning”, which was featured in a 2006 issue of the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine. In that article, Dr. Pia describes the typical drowning response:

“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 mouth of a drowning person is not above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning person’s mouth is above the surface, she exhales and inhales quickly as her mouth starts 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.”

Sadly, drowning is one of the leading killers of children ages 1 to 4. To keep your children safe this summer while enjoying the pool or lake, watch for these signs:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with open mouth
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Eyes glassy, empty and unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Not using legs
  • Body is vertical and upright
  • Trying to swim in a certain direction but not making progress
  • Trying to roll over on the back

Also, be aware while swimming with your children. Ask them if they’re okay at various times during the swim and if they don’t answer or give a blank stare, get them out of the water immediately; you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. A good way to know if your kids are okay is if they’re making sounds. As every parent knows, kids like to make noise in the water and this is a good sign that they’re okay.

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