Parents who want to keep their kids safe in pools, lakes and rivers this summer should heed this warning from the U.S. Coast Guard: If your child looks like they are quietly treading water, they may actually be drowning.
An article in the Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue titled “It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning” breaks down the signs of what is called Instinctive Drowning Response. The article was written in 2006, but it received new life this week in a post on Slate.com – written by one of the original authors – which has spread quickly across social media.
Most people would assume that a drowning person would be splashing, waving and yelling for help. Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D say that’s not possible during Instinctive Drowning Response.
Bottom line: The quiet person who looks like they are simply treading water, with their head back and mouth open, is more likely to be drowning. It’s something to think about when normally loud children are playing in the water.
This list is an excerpt from the original 2006 Coast Guard article.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Vittone says the best test is to ask a person in the water if they are OK. If all you get back is a blank stare, you may only have seconds to rescue them.
A person splashing around and calling for help could still be in trouble, but Vittone and Pia say those people are in aquatic distress, which means they can still assist themselves. However, that phase doesn’t last long.