On TV, a drowning person flails and splashes and yells for help. This creates dramatic tension and sets up the heroic rescue.

In real life, drowning does not look like that. Unlike TV and the movies, the person makes very little sound — struggling briefly before slipping below the water’s surface. Learn to spot the signs of a swimmer in distress.

 

Drowning does not look like it’s portrayed in the movies

When a person begins to drown, their body goes into survival mode. The “Instinctive Drowning Response” is the body’s desperate attempt to get air and stay above the surface.

  • The person is unable to call for help. Their lungs are too busy trying to simply breathe.
  • They will typically go under the water and re-surface several times, inhaling and exhaling rapidly to catch a breath.
  • Their arms are pushing down against the water or clawing desperately for the surface. They are not able to wave for help.
  • Drowning people cannot consciously control their bodies or assist in their own rescue. They don’t kick to the surface or stroke toward shore.

If a swimmer is able to talk or signal for help, they are not (yet) drowning. But they may be moments away from danger. It only takes 20 to 60 seconds to drown. It all happens very quickly and quietly, often with people nearby.

Know the signs of a distressed or drowning swimmer

About half of children who drown are within 75 feet of an adult or parent. Sadly, sometimes the adults are watching their child drown without realizing it.

Contrary to the shouting and splashing depicted on TV, these are some of the actual signs that a person is drowning or in serious distress:

  • Head barely above water, tilted back
  • Eyes glassy and unseeing
  • Eyes panicked, mouth open, but no sound
  • Hair over eyes or eyes closed
  • Gasping, sputtering or rapid breaths
  • Legs are not kicking
  • Trying to swim but not gaining ground

If a swimmer appears to be in trouble, ask “Are you OK?” If they cannot answer or do not hear you, they need immediately help.

Drowning and near-drowning

According to the CDC, about 3,500 swimmers drown each year, including over 700 children under the age of 15 who die in swimming pools, bathtubs, lakes, rivers or the ocean.

For every child who drowns, another five receive emergency department care for submersion injuries, including brain damage from prolonged oxygen deprivation. Such children may have permanent cognitive deficits, memory loss, physical impairments or coma. These disabilities cause serious financial strains and emotional hardships for the victims and the family.