Emergency Physicians Share Tips to Recognize and Prevent Drowning

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Swimming and boating season will soon be underway as Memorial Day weekend approaches. Knowing how to recognize the signs of a distressed swimmer and prevent someone from drowning can save lives, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

“Even the most experienced swimmers can be in danger if the weather is bad, currents are strong or a medical emergency occurs in the water,” said Gillian Schmitz, MD, FACEP, president of ACEP. “Most drowning accidents are preventable, but it only takes seconds for a tragedy to occur.”

On average every day, 11 people are killed in unintentional drownings—one of the leading causes of death among children ages one to four, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What can be done? Always designate a responsible adult to supervise children in or near water. Clear any loose toys from the pool area to avoid a tripping hazard for children or adults. Do not use a toy as a flotation device. Use life jackets for activities in or near lakes, rivers, or oceans, especially for children and weaker swimmers. When swimming in natural bodies of water, be wary of hidden hazards such as strong currents, sharp rocks, or tangles of vegetation. Be sure to check the weather forecast before committing to activities on the water.

Emergency physicians recommend that everyone uses the buddy system when swimming. Avoid drinking alcohol before or during water activities or while supervising children. Be mindful that anyone with medical conditions or those taking certain medications may require additional precautions. The signs that someone is drowning may be subtle. Watch for:

  • Bobbing or floating in place
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Head low in the water, with mouth at water level
  • Trying to roll over onto the back
  • Hyperventilating or gasping for breath
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus, or eyes closed

Take swift action if somebody is potentially drowning or seems in trouble in the water. Get help from a lifeguard or call 911. Do not attempt to rescue a drowning person while in the water unless trained to do so. People who are drowning may panic and try to pull anyone nearby underwater with them.

Extend or throw a floating object. Once a person is safely out of the water, tilt their head back, lift their chin and check for breath. Turn the person on their side in case they vomit. If the person is not breathing, anyone trained should begin to perform CPR until first responders arrive.

“Learning to swim and becoming familiar with water safety are choices that can save a life,” said Dr. Schmitz. “Simple steps to avoid danger can help keep everyone safe during the holiday weekend and through the summer.”

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) is the national medical society representing emergency medicine. Through continuing education, research, public education, and advocacy, ACEP advances emergency care on behalf of its 40,000 emergency physician members, and the more than 150 million people they treat on an annual basis. For more information, visit www.acep.org and www.emergencyphysicians.org

Contact: Steve Arnoff | sarnoff@acep.org | Twitter @EmergencyDocs

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