Being smart on the water could save a life

June is here and with it the longer, warmer days of summer. With local pools opening and water fun kicking into high gear, water safety should be making its way to the top of our priority lists. But unfortunately, not everyone thinks about safety before hitting the pool, the lake or the Puget Sound.

Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. across all age groups and the second leading cause in those types of deaths in children 17 and under in Washington. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than 3,000 people die from accidental, non-boating related drownings per year, roughly 600 of whom are children.

That is a lot of people dying from something that is almost entirely preventable.

As anyone who knew me when I was young will tell you, it’s more than a little surprising that I’m still here. I was, shall we say, challenging for my parents, having amassed binders full of potentially deadly incidents by the time I was 13. Two of which were near drownings.

I was never a great swimmer, but that never kept me away from the water. And that is, unfortunately, a pretty typical drowning scenario. According to studies done by the CDC and the American Red Cross, only 35 to 50 percent of Americans know how to swim, and only a small fraction of them can swim well. Teens more often than other age groups will go beyond their limits in the water, leading to exhaustion or disorientation and panic.

Both of my own close calls involved not being a strong enough swimmer for what I was trying to do. Kids and teens — and let’s face it, many adults — won’t always make the best decisions, so why not make sure they at least have the skills to back them up when they need it?

More than half of the drowning deaths in people age 15 and older happen in natural bodies of water, and alcohol is involved 70 percent of the time. The Red Cross says that learning to swim, water safety education and parent-driven rules for kids and teens are the key to reducing these numbers. Expectations such as never swimming alone, following posted rules, not diving into shallow water and if outside, stopping swimming when the sun stops shining, are strongly encouraged. These rules may sound like common sense, but the numbers don’t lie — in 2012, 16 kids between the ages of 14 and 18 died from accidental drowning in Washington.

In young children, the majority of drownings happen in swimming pools, largely due to unsupervised access to pools that aren’t fenced with locked gates. But drowning, especially in very young children, can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water and even when adults or lifeguards are present.

In any of these scenarios, knowing what you’re seeing or what to look for is vital.

An article that first appeared about a year ago has been making the rounds again on the internet lately, and this piece about what drowning really looks like could save lives.

The article explains that drowning in real life often doesn’t look like what we see in the movies or on TV. We have been conditioned to think that drowning people will be flailing and calling for help, making noise and splashing. However, the reality is that the body of a person who is actually drowning will instinctively go into what’s known as the “instinctive drowning response,” a physiologic defense to try to avoid suffocation by the water.

Key characteristics of this response are that victims will be unable to speak or wave their arms, their mouths will alternate between sinking below the water and coming up just above it or their heads will be tilted back with their mouths open. Often victims will remain upright without kicking and may attempt to swim but will be unable to move toward rescue.

This response enables a victim to remain at the surface for only 20 to 60 seconds.

This is not to say that someone who is calling for help and thrashing isn’t in need of assistance, but in that state, known as aquatic distress, they are still capable of assisting in their own rescue, whereas someone who is already drowning cannot.

Another important drowning fact that is just recently gaining more awareness is that drowning can occur even after a person has left the water. This is called secondary or dry drowning, and happens when someone — usually a young child — has had a near-drowning experience and inhaled a small amount of water. They have been rescued in time, and often appear fine, but the fluid irritates the lung tissue over time. This causes inflammation, swelling and eventually respiratory distress and death if not treated in time. This can happen anywhere from one hour to an entire day after a near-drowning incident. It’s important to watch for persistent coughing, shortness of breath, excessive tiredness or mood changes in anyone who has nearly drowned.

One final and important recommendation from the Red Cross is to learn CPR. CPR performed by bystanders has been shown to both save lives and improve outcomes for drowning victims — the faster CPR is started, the better the outcome. It’s also just a good skill to have. I have had to use CPR twice in public places since first being certified — you truly never know when it might be needed.

Talk to your kids, be aware, sign up for lessons and most of all, enjoy the water. Drowning is preventable in most cases. Three thousand deaths per year is senseless.

— Sarah Low is a staff writer for The Beachcomber and a former nurse practitioner.

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