Most people think drowning looks like a damsel in distress in the movies who is screaming HELP and waving her hands. If the damsel actually had that amount of energy and air, she would not be drowning. She may be having an emergency from which she needs to be rescued, but as long as she can scream with flailing arms her emergency is not drowning.
Drowning is almost silent like the sound of someone choking only able to occasionally suck in air.
A person who is drowning does not want to sink, so they push as hard as they can with their arms and their legs under the water. As they get more and more tired and their head slips beneath the water, a horrifying fear kicks in and they surface enough to get a breath. Then, down they go again.
This process continues until fatigue sets in and they are no longer able to break the surface of the water to get a breath. Carbon dioxide levels increase, they lose consciousness and cardiac arrest sets in.
From the shore of the lake or side of the pool, this process appears underwhelming and may even look as if the person is playing a game by bobbing up and down. It may look fun and be very easy to ignore or overlook even when it is happening right beside you.
In the U.S., boys who are poor swimmers and/or risk takers are the most likely to drown. Unfortunately, I can predict the next person to drown in our area. It will not be the child who spends all summer at the pool or lake with their family. Instead, it will likely be a young person who is a poor swimmer visiting a friend’s pool or the lake trying to keep up with their peers.
This young person most likely has a parent who is afraid of drowning, so they have never learned to swim.
The best defense against drowning is parental and life guard vigilance and learning to swim. If a parent can overcome fear and get swim lessons for their child, they will break the cycle of fear and reduce the risk of drowning for generations to come. Drowning is a silent but devastating tragedy for families. It takes normally takes several minutes to drown, but it can happen silently right in front of your eyes.
Learn more about pool safety by reading previous blogs posted on this site, and also consider investing in personal floatation devices. Also, if you own a pool, install a pool alarm, fencing and pool side door locks to keep children out the pool when they are not monitored.
Graham Snyder, MD, is an emergency physicians who also serves as the medical director of the Center for Innovative Learning.