Drownings are quiet and happen quickly — here's how to prevent a tragedy

For children ages 1 to 4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death.
/ Source: TODAY

Summer looks different this year with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many closer to home. For some, taking a dip in their pool or soaking in a hot tub sounds like a wonderful break. But a new report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission encourages parents to remain alert near water because the number of children under 15 dying by drowning has been increasing. Drowning remains the leading cause of accidental death in children under 4.

On average, 379 spa or pool-related deaths occur each year with 395 pool- or spa-related deaths occurring in 2017, according to the new report. A vast majority, 71%, of these drownings occur at a family, neighbor or friend's pool. Most drownings, 75%, involved children under 5 and a lack of supervision played a role 56% of them. From 2017 to 2019 there were 6,700 pool or spa-related emergency room injuries related to non-fatal drowning.

In October 2019, Laura Forrester — who took steps to secure her pool to protect her children —experienced one of those non-fatal drownings. She turned her back briefly and her 2-year-old daughter, Andie, fell into the pool. Luckily, 4-year-old brother Gray, jumped in to rescue the girl.

“It happened so fast, because they had just been with me not even five minutes ago," Forrester told Knoxville's NBC WBIR.

She bought the house right after Olympic star Bode Miller's daughter drowned in 2018, so she was mindful of the risks. Thanks to her son's quick action, Andie survived. Understanding the risk of drowning, what it looks like and how to prevent it can help to reduce these tragic accidents.

What does drowning look like?

“It is not loud and noisy. It is actually very quiet and it can happen very quickly,” Lisa Zarda, executive director with the U.S. Swim School Association (USSSA), told TODAY. “It’s one of the unfortunate misnomers from TV and movies.”

Granger Smith, a country music star whose three-year-old son River drowned in 2019, said that his son's drowning was "silent."

"There wasn't a splash," he told TODAY on July 1, 2020. "There wasn't any kind of call for help. I just saw him. I turned around and I saw him."

People are who drowning — whether an adult or child — are often too busy trying to breathe and trying to stay afloat to be able to call out for help.

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

Tips to keep kids safe around water

Smith said that a year ago, he would have thought "supervision" would have been enough to keep kids safe around water, but now recommends having more proactive protective measures in place.

"I know now, from my own experience, that no human being on this planet is ... capable of saying supervision is enough," he said. "That requires 24/7 (watching)."

He recommends some safety measures, like making sure kids know how to swim, installing a locked pool gate and a pool alarm.

"If you add it all up, and you take every precaution you can, and you're well educated and you know how fast it can be, you're much better off, and you're much, much better protected," Smith said.

How to rescue a drowning person, according to USSSA guidelines:

  • “Throw, don’t go”— Never just jump in because a drowning person can accidentally pull their rescuers under with them. Tossing a lifesaving device, rope, towel or even pool noodle helps the drowning person without increasing risk to others.

  • Get backup — Call 911 or inform others that someone is drowning, so they can call 911, and let them know you're helping. Alert lifeguards; they’re trained to assist.

  • Help from behind — When drowning people see a rescuer coming toward them, they clutch and pull them under the water. Approaching them from behind is safer for both the rescuer and the victim.
  • Use a life jacket — Wearing a Coast Guard-approved life jacket prevents a rescuer from being pulled under by a drowning person or an undercurrent. Life jackets are essential for rescues in water with currents, such as lakes, rivers and oceans.
  • Look for signs of secondary drowning — If drowning is prevented, the victim might still have water in his lungs and can suffocate hours later. Look for labored breathing, lethargy and coughing hours afterward, which can indicate secondary drowning.

If in open water:

Wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket that properly fits. Tether yourself to a boat or dock to prevent being carried away by the currents.

Have a designated watcher.

Many times people drown because they swallow water or become tired and slip under the water. Having one person to keep watch over the group means that person notices if someone is suddenly missing.

“You should always have someone be a designated water watcher,” Zarda said. “The faster you can start CPR and call 911, the better."

Learn to swim.

While the guidelines help people save struggling swimmers, Zarda recommends that people try preventing the incidents. Learning how to swim remains one of the best ways to prevent drowning.

“It is absolutely necessary that everyone learns how to swim,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the age. You are never too old to learn how to swim. It truly is a life skill.”

Find local swim lessons via the USA Swimming Foundation's website, here.

This article was originally published in August 2018 and was updated in June 2020 to reflect new data.