Prevent Drowning

Drowning is one of the most common preventable causes of death in infants, kids, and teens. Learn how to protect against this tragedy!

Summer is on its way. We’ll soon be visiting lakes and pools to cool off from the heat. Unfortunately drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in children between ages 1 and 4. It continues to be a top cause of unintentional death among other age groups through the early adult years. Fortunately there are many precautions we can take to help lower the risk.

I wrote about Sun and Water Safety last summer, and want to remind everyone about the risks of drowning. I also wrote about Dry Drowning previously, but it seems that it isn’t really a thing – see the addendum in that post.

What are the risks?

About 1 in 5 people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. Each year about 300-500 children under 5 years of age drown.

For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. Even though they’re not fatal, they have significant consequences.

Over half of drowning victims treated in emergency departments require hospitalization for further evaluation and treatment. These nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that may result in long term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and a permanent loss of basic functioning.

What increases the risks?

  • Lack of Swimming Ability: Many adults and children report that they can’t swim. Swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children. See the link at the bottom for more on swim lessons.
  • Lack of Barriers: Barriers, such as pool fencing and alarm systems, prevent young children from gaining access to the pool area. A 4-sided fence reduces a child’s risk of drowning 83% compared to 3-sided fence with the house as the forth side. A great guide on barriers is from the US Consumer Protection Service.
  • Lack of Close Supervision: Drowning can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water. This includes bathtubs, swimming pools, pet water bowls, and buckets. This is why non-swimming times account for most drowning accidents.
  • Location: Most children 1-4 years of age drown in home swimming pools. More than half of the drownings among those 15 years and older occurred in natural water settings, such as lakes.
  • Failure to Wear Life Jackets: Most boating deaths are caused by drowning, with 88% of victims not wearing life jackets.
  • Alcohol Use: Among adolescents and adults alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation. 
  • Seizure Disorders: For persons with seizure disorders, drowning is the most common cause of unintentional injury death, with the bathtub as the site of highest drowning risk.

How can you recognize drowning?

Movies show people splashing around and yelling for help as they drown.

Don’t let that fool you. Movies are not reality.

Signs of drowning:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder
  • Trying to roll over on the back

Most drowning victims are silent. They don’t splash to get your attention. Watch this video from Inside Edition that captures several drowning victims:

Assign a water watcher to keep an eye on young children in water. #drowning @pediatricskc

Teach water safety

Learn how to swim and teach your children to swim as well. If your child(ren) are good swimmers, be sure to still have rules about pool use and limit pool access. Even strong swimmers can drown. See the link in the resources below for infomation on swim lessons.

No one should swim alone. If your children are not able to follow that rule, the pool should not be accessible to them. Gates and alarm systems can be used to limit access to home pools and hot tubs.

Not all teens are safe swimmers, but they don’t often fess up to their friends. They are also at risk of making impulsive decisions to drink alcohol near water, forego their life vest on a boat, jump off a cliff into water, or other things that could put them at risk. Talk to your teens about safety – in and out of the water! Encourage teens to learn CPR.

Water safety in easy-to-see graphic form

From https://twitter.com/DrEmMontgomery/status/1109249128712810497

The @AmerAcadPeds updated their policy statement on #drowning prevention this week. #watersafety pic.twitter.com/8B57ZprmvJ— Emily Montgomery, MD (@DrEmMontgomery) March 23, 2019

Making home water safer

All pools should have a 4 foot fence around all sides. This includes below-ground pools as well as portable pools. It is much less safe to use the house as one of the borders, since young children can escape out the door and into the pool, but if you must use your home, take precautions. Install an alarm system to alert you if the door to the pool area is opened. Use a pool or spa cover when the pool or spa is not in use.

A short word on portable pools. They can include inexpensive blow up pools and larger pools. Portable pools present a real danger to young children because they are often not seen as a threat. Portable pools account for 10% of the total drowning deaths for children younger than 15 . They should be drained, covered, or fenced to protect children. Don’t leave them in the yard unattended.

Ask neighbors to put a proper barrier around their pools or hot tubs.

Ensure any pool or hot tub (spa) you use has anti-entrapment safety drain covers.

Have life saving equipment such as life rings, floats or a reaching pole available and easily accessible.

If you have a home pool, be sure that it's protected from your kids. @pediatricskc
From https://downloads.aap.org/DOPA/Drowning-Prevention/pool_safety_english.pdf

It’s not just pools that are risks…

Bowls and buckets

Keep pet water bowls out of reach of young children.

Drain any buckets of water after they’re used.

Toilet dangers

Close bathroom doors and toilet lids to keep young ones from playing in the water.

Bath time

Monitor young kids and those with seizure risks in the bath the entire time. Do not leave the room even for a few moments.

Don’t read or check your phone when you’re watching kids in the tub, just like at the pool.

Drain the bath tub before young kids even get out. This not only helps your kids not climb back in (a common reason to need stitches when kids slip trying to climb in), but it also prevents them from drowning in left over water.

For more:

Swim Lessons: When to start and what parents should know

Infant water safety: protect your new baby from drowning

Drowning Prevention for Curious Toddlers: What Parents Need to Know

Water safety: Tips for parents of young children

Water safety for teens

Teen drowning can be prevented with safety measures: Teens don’t always follow the rules. Their impulsivity and thrill seeking behaviors put them in a unique risk for dangers.

For pool barrier guidelines and suggestions, see the Safety Barrier Guidelines for Residential Pools Preventing Child Drownings from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. This is important for all pools and hot tubs, including portable pools.

Pool Dangers and Drowning Prevention – When It’s Not Swimming Time: Remember to keep all pools, tubs, and buckets of water secure at all times.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS)

Dry Drowning – What Parents Need to Know

I thought about calling this one “We’re drowning in dry drowning phone calls” because we are getting many worried calls about dry drowning, but that’s overly dramatic and I hate headlines that make things seem like the sky is falling…

I had never heard of dry drowning until social media picked it up a couple of summers ago. Maybe I did as a resident, but since I’ve never seen it, I’d forgotten the term. Either way, it isn’t very common at all.

Several articles have emerged since the original writing of this post that clearly indicate there is no such thing as dry drowning.

One of the reasons I think so many parents are worried is that it is common for kids to go under water: in the tub and in the pool. Many get water in their mouth or complain that it went up their nose. Few actually get any into their lungs, which is where it can cause problems. How can you know when you need to worry?

Most of us recall a time we coughed briefly after inhaling liquid, and we were fine. So when is it worrisome? It’s when the water that gets into the lungs causes inflammation within the next day or two. This inflammation makes it hard for the lungs to work – the air tubes are swollen, so air can’t get through. Treatment is giving oxygen, sometimes with a ventilator (breathing tube and machine) until the inflammation goes down.

Symptoms you need to recognize and act upon by taking your child to an ER:
  • Cough: If your child has coughing for a minute or more after being in water, he’s at risk. This indicates that the child is trying to clear the airways. If water got down there and they cough most up, some can remain behind and lead to inflammation over time. Watching your child carefully for the next 3-4 days is important. This can be hard to recognize initially, so a complete evaluation is important if any other symptoms develop.
  • Difficulty breathing: Anyone who is struggling to breathe needs further evaluation. Signs can be rapid breathing, sucking in the ribs or the stomach, difficulty talking, or even a look of fear from difficult breathing.
  • Near drowning: If your child had to be pulled out of the water, he should be evaluated in an ER. Even if he seems fine afterwards. The reaction is delayed, so they can seem to be 100% better and then go downhill.
  • Behavior changes or confusion: If a child is confused, lethargic** or has a change in ability to recognize people, he should go to the ER. Serious illnesses can present with a change in mental status, including significant infections, concussion, heat exhaustion, brain tumors, and drowning. The ER doctor will ask what else has been going on to help identify the cause of confusion.  **Many people misuse the term lethargic. Lethargic isn’t the same thing as being tired after a long day. The medical definition is “Relatively mild impairment of consciousness resulting in reduced alertness and awareness; this condition has many causes but is ultimately due to generalized brain dysfunction.”
  • Vomiting: Vomiting after a day at the pool can be due to infection (from swallowing contaminated pool water), food poisoning (from food left in the heat too long) or dry drowning. It’s best to check it out in the ER.
What will happen in the ER?

Many parents don’t want to go to the ER because of high co-pays. We try to keep kids out of the ER as much as possible. But some issues are better taken care of in an ER. Most offices don’t have the equipment or staff to manage these issues well. Dry drowning can be life threatening, and the evaluation and treatment should start in the ER. I cannot say exactly what the doctor will do, since that will depend on your child’s symptoms and exam. There is no specific treatment for this, only supporting your child’s airway and breathing as the swelling goes down.

  • If the doctor thinks your child may have swelling of the airways, he might order a chest x-ray to look for pulmonary edema (lung tissue swelling).
  • An iv might be started to be able to give adequate fluids, since your child might not be up to drinking well.
  • Oxygen levels will be monitored and extra oxygen might be given.
  • Since the swelling worsens before it gets better, if there is a strong suspicion of dry drowning your child will be admitted for further observation.
  • Some kids need help breathing and are put on a ventilator (breathing machine) until the swelling goes down.
Prevention is important!

swimming
Watch your kids when around water!

As with many things, we should do all we can to be sure our kids are safe around water. This includes the bathtub and toilet as well as swimming pools, lakes, and ponds.

  • Childproof your home when you have little ones who might play in a pet water bowl or the toilet.
  • Teach your kids water safety. Swimming lessons can help them learn skills. Tell them to never try to dunk each other. They shouldn’t pretend they’re drowning because it might distract a lifeguard from a true emergency.
  • Learn infant and child CPR.
  • If you have a pool or pond at home, be sure there is a fence limiting access from your house.
  • Watch your kids closely and keep them within reach when they’re in water until they are strong swimmers. When they are strong swimmers you can let them swim outside your reach as long as lifeguards are present.
  • Learn what distress in the water looks like. The movie depiction of drowning with a lot of yelling and thrashing around is not what usually happens. If someone can verbalize that they’re okay, they probably are. Drowning victims can’t ask for help. There is a video linked to this page of what to look for with drowning that shows an actual rescue.
From this site, signs of drowning:
  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back

Addendum:

    • I just read a post that gives references regarding drowning definitions. It appears I didn’t forget learning about dry drowning in medical school.

It isn’t really a thing.

The symptoms listed above that I recommend getting evaluated are still concerning symptoms, but they might be from another cause.

Check these out:

On “Dry Drowning”

Drowning in a Sea of Misinformation: Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Drowning is never dry: Two ER doctors explain the real swimming danger kids face