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  • Writer's pictureAnne Nymark Team

Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning: 5 Ways To Spot It, Save Life

Drowning happens more quietly in real life than on TV, and it can happen without parents knowing, when they're only a few feet away.

By Beth Dalbey, Patch National Staff | Jun 5, 2018 6:11 pm ET

You might expect to see flailing arms or hear a frantic call for help when someone is drowning, but drowning doesn't look like you may think it does. Real-life drowning happens quietly and not at all like the dramatic scenarios that play out on television. People can't simply stop drowning long enough to take in a breath of air, scream for help and telegraph their panic with a wave. The human body isn't built that way.

Children can drown right in front of parents, as little as 10 feet away. That happened in New York a while back, and a boat captain and former lifeguard trained to recognize what's called Instinctive Drowning Response saw what the parents of a 10-year-old girl couldn't see from a few feet: Their daughter was drowning. Because he knows what drowning looks like, the boat captain was able to rescue the girl.

Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children 14 and younger, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 750 children drown each year, 375 of whom do so within 25 yards of a parent or adult.

More startling, the CDC said 10 percent of parents watch their children drown because they don't know it's happening. Recognizing the real-life signs of drowning is especially important as schools dismiss and Americans head to beaches and swimming pools to cool off during the hot months of summer.

Before people drown, they may thrash around in the water — a sign they're in "aquatic distress," which may or may not happen before a drowning. They're normally able to assist in their own rescue by grabbing lifelines, throw rings and other devices.

A true drowning victim, like the young girl saved by the boat captain, is most often helpless. That's because the body instinctively responds to drowning, according to lifeguard Francesco Pia, who came up with the name, Instinctive Drowning Response, to describe the process.

Rescuers have as few as 20 seconds and up to a minute to save a person from drowning.

Here are five tips for recognizing drowning, as originally published in the Coast Guard's On Scene magazine and shared by

1. In all but rare circumstances, people are physiologically unable to call for help. The respiratory system is designed for breathing, and speech is a secondary function. "Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs," the article said.

2. A drowning person's mouth alternately sinks below and rises above the surface of the water, but the mouth is never above the surface long enough to exhale, inhale and cry for help. A drowning person will exhale and inhale quickly before their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water again.

3. Drowning people can't flag down help. "Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface," the article said. "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".

4. When they're drowning, people lose control of their arms. They're struggling to stay afloat in the water, and "cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or teaching out for a piece of rescue equipment," the article said.

5. Drowning people remain upright in the water, and there's no evidence of a supporting kick.

Some signs to look for also include:

  • The drowning person's head is tilted back with the mouth open;

  • Eyes appear glassy and empty, unable to focus, or may be closed;

  • Hair may be over the forehead or eyes of the drowning person;

  • The drowning person won't be moving his or her legs;

  • The drowning person may be hyperventilating or gasping;

  • The person may be trying to swim in a particular direction, but isn't making headway;

  • The person may try to roll over the back;

  • The person may appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

Young children are especially at risk of drowning because they can slip quickly away from their parents and go into water without understanding how dangerous it is, according to The most important thing is to get the drowning child out of the water as quickly as possible. If the child isn't breathing, flip the child over on his or her back and begin rescue breathing while someone else calls for help. Don't stop performing CPR until medical help arrives, even if the child is unresponsive.

Here are the steps you should follow:

1. Open the child's airway by gently tilting back the head with one hand and lifting the chin with the other. Put your ear the child's mouth and nose, and look, listen and feel for signs the child is breathing. Do you feel air on your cheek? Is the infant's chest moving? Can you hear breathing (gasping for air isn't breathing)?

2. If the child isn't breathing, what you do next depends on the age of the child. For a child under 1 year, cover the infant's nose and mouth with your mouth and breathe out two shots of air, each lasting about a second, and look for the chest to rise and fall. If the child or person is older, pinch the child's nose, and seal your lips around the mouth. Give two, slow, full breaths, about a second each, then wait for the chest to rise and fall.

3. Check for a pulse once you see the person's chest rising and falling. To check for the pulse, put two fingers on the child's heck to the side of the Adam's apple. To find an infant's pulse, feel inside the arm between the elbow and shoulder. Wait five seconds, and if there still is no pulse, give one breath every three seconds. Check for a pulse every minute, and continue rescue breathing until the child begins breathing or help arrives. When you resume rescue breathing, be sure to tilt the child's head back and lift the chin.

4. Begin chest compressions if you can't find a pulse. For infants, visualize a line between the child's nipples and place two fingers just below the midpoint, then apply five quick, half-inch compressions in about three seconds. After each one, give one breath using the rescue breathing technique. Among older children, use the heel of your hand — or both hands if the person is a teenager or adult — and apply five quick, one-inch compressions to the breastbone (just above where the ribs come together) in about three seconds. After five compressions, perform rescue breathing and give one full breath. For all ages, continue the cycle of five chest compressions followed by a breath in one minute until the person begins breathing on their own or help arrives.

Drowning hazards aren't limited to big bodies of water, though. Infants and toddlers can drown in as little as two inches of water, including in bath tubs, buckets and containers, toilet bowls, diaper pails and wading pools, according to

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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