We all have a perception of what drowning might look like, but most of that is influenced by what we see in the movies and on TV. In all reality there is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. As a matter of fact experts say that of the 750 children that are expected to die of drowning next year, 375 of them will drown within 25 feet of a parent or other adult. In a recent article in the Coast Guard's On Scene magazine, Dr Francesco Pia, Ph.D, outlined what he calls the Instinctive Drowning Response. This is when drowning doesn't look like drowning. Here is Dr. Pia's description of the Instinctive Drowning Response,

  • “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.”

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in trouble but they are still in a position to help themselves in their own rescue by grabbing a line a life preserver or other device.

Here are some other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • 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
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

The thing to really keep in mind, especially when it comes to kids, when playing in the water we will usually make a lot of noise, it's when the noise stops that you should be looking for something wrong.

Here is a video explanation of the Instinctive Drowning Response