Posted by: Ken Brown | July 10, 2010

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

This isn’t the kind of thing I would normally post, but I just have to do so. Rachel Motte linked to this on twitter and it should be read by all parents and everyone who spends any time around water (the comments are also well worth reading). Drowning doesn’t look like drowning:

The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D.,  is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.  And it does not look like most people expect.  There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.  To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this:  It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents) – of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.  In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC).  Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

  1. 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.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

(Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006)

Read the whole article here.

A great many commenters confirm this information from their own experiences, and several stress the danger drowning also posses to the rescuer:

The instinctive drowning response is a climbing response. What you see are twin splashes as the person’s arms flail wide looking for something to grab on to. If they find it the automatic response is to grab it, climb up, and stand on top. The person doing this is panicked and has massively more strength than you think. If you are swimming and a young child does that to you, you will go under water. If you panic, you will get the same reflex, and will drown yourself.

Again, read the whole article and the important discussion in the comments here.

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Responses

  1. This is really excellent and important information. Our neighbor friend’s daughter almost drowned recently, so I’ll be reading it carefully. Thank you for sharing!


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