Wellness

Drowning often quick, silent. How to spot someone in trouble

June 6, 2013 at 9:25 AM ET

Video: Drowning remains the second-leading cause of accidental death for children, and very often adults don’t even notice kids who are drowning in the same pool. NBC’s Tom Costello explains what you should be on the alert for in the water this summer.

Summer is almost here and kids are ready to play in the ocean and swim in the pool. But would you know if one of your children was drowning?

Even if a lifeguard is on duty, drowning can occur so quickly, and so silently, that a swimmer can die before anyone notices.

“Hollywood teaches us that there is splashing and yelling, and that’s almost never the case,” says Mario Vittone, a water safety expert and a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer. “Drowning is often silent.”

Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1 to 14, behind motor vehicle crashes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. A lapse in adult supervision is the "single, most important" factor in child drowning deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Many people have the wrong image in their heads when it comes to drowning, experts say. Drowning people – whether adults or kids – are often too busy trying to get air in their lungs and trying to stay afloat to be able to call out for help.

The struggle to keep their mouths out of the water means they aren’t flailing about. Very often drowning people will extend their arms and just push against the water to try to keep their heads up. While that motion might lead to a little bit of splashing, it won't be dramatic.

Some of the warning signs include:

  • Mouth at water level (and may alternate between being just above the surface and just below it)
  • Head tilted back as the person tries to float
  • Eyes glassy or closed

The best way to know if your child is OK is to ask: If they’re in trouble they most likely won’t be able to answer.

The best prevention is swimming lessons and vigilance. Wherever kids are swimming in pools, backyards, lakes or rivers, an adult needs to be nearby and attentive.

“A child can drown within seconds before anyone knows that the child is under the water,” says Inez Tenenbaum of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. “And that is why it is so important for children to know how to swim.”

But even if your kids can swim, you still need to be watching them closely when they’re in the water, experts say.

“One of the things I often see is parents who are watching the children but they’re on their cell phones, or they’re texting,” Vittone says. “If you’re not looking at them, then you’re not watching them.”

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