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Drowning Prevention: 7 Signs A Swimmer is at Risk

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

drowning victim

Big film franchises have highly distorted our perception of what it is like spotting a drowning person & how to rescue & revive them. In real life, a drowning person will struggle and flail around in the water for a bit before becoming stationary. And the danger is genuine even in a swimming pool where so many children & adults are in a constricted space.

As a lifeguard, one must remove themselves from the media perceptions of drowning and focus on studying real-life signs that indicate a person in distress in the water. Lifeguard LI focuses on this, and here are some basic signs of drowning that can turn a simple pool party into tragedy.

1. Hyperventilating and Silent Panic

When someone is drowning, their primary focus is on breathing, not calling for help. This is why a person might be seen hyperventilating. Their rapid breaths are a desperate attempt to get oxygen. The silence can be misleading, making it seem like they're okay when they're not. It's crucial to recognize this silent struggle.

2. Head Low in the Water

A drowning person might not be able to keep their head above water effectively. Their head might frequently submerge, and when it does come up, water often reaches their mouth level. This position makes it challenging to breathe or call for help, further emphasizing the silent nature of drowning.

3. Head Tilted Back with Mouth Open

As the person tries to breathe, they might tilt their head back to keep their nose and mouth above water. The open mouth indicates their attempt to gasp for air amidst the crisis. This posture is a clear sign of someone in distress.

4. Motionless, Vertical Floating

Contrary to the thrashing often shown in movies, a drowning person might appear almost still in the water, floating vertically. This lack of movement doesn't mean they're okay. Instead, it's a sign they might have exhausted their energy and are unable to fight any longer.

5. Ineffective Swimming

A person in distress might look like they're trying to swim but without making any progress. They might paddle their hands and kick their feet, but they remain in the same spot. This ineffective swimming is a sign they're losing their battle against the water.

6. Clawing at the Water

In a desperate attempt to stay afloat, a drowning person might appear to be clawing or climbing an invisible ladder. This action is their instinctive response, trying to find something to hold onto, even if there's nothing there.

7. Wide, Glassy Eyes After Retrieval

Once someone is pulled from the water, their ordeal might not be over. If they present with wide, glassy eyes that seem unfocused, it indicates a severe lack of oxygen to the brain. Immediate medical attention is crucial in such cases to prevent further complications.

Recognizing these signs is vital. Drowning often happens quietly and quickly, making it essential for everyone to be aware and vigilant around water.

What Can You Do If a Person Is Drowning?

1. Remaining Calm and Conscious

In a drowning situation, panic can exacerbate the problem. When someone is conscious and aware, it's crucial to remind them to stay calm. Panicking can lead to rapid exhaustion, making it harder for the person to stay afloat. By staying calm and avoiding flailing, the individual can conserve energy and make it easier for rescuers to reach them. Keeping their head above water ensures they can breathe and communicate if necessary.

2. Using Floatable Objects

In many cases, the immediate availability of a flotation device can make the difference between life and death. If specialized flotation devices aren't at hand, improvising with nearby objects can be a lifesaver. Branches, pool cleaning equipment, or even a cooler can provide the necessary buoyancy to keep a person afloat until further help arrives. It's essential to throw these objects close enough for the person to grab without endangering the rescuer.

3. Relying on Capable Swimmers

Not everyone is equipped to handle a water rescue. In situations where someone is drowning, it's vital to ensure that only those confident in their swimming abilities attempt a rescue. A capable swimmer can approach the person in distress, ensuring both their safety and the safety of the individual in danger. It's a delicate balance, as sometimes the person in distress, driven by panic, might inadvertently pull the rescuer down with them.

4. Handling Unconscious Victims

If a person has been retrieved from the water and is unconscious, the situation becomes even more critical. It's essential to lay them down flat, ensuring their airways are clear. Calling emergency services immediately is paramount. While waiting for professional medical help, it's crucial not to prop the person up or let them sit against their backs. This position can compromise their breathing and delay recovery. Instead, keeping them flat allows for any water to drain and facilitates potential CPR if needed.

Prevention Is Better Than Inviting Disaster

Be it a college, a community, or a private pool, if there are weak swimmers around or non-swimmers in tow, never leave them unsupervised. The designated water watcher should equally watch children & adults. Provide flotation gear and always have an extra on hand to throw to a person in distress.

Hire Lifeguard LI's Services for Every Pool Activity

The idea of swimming in a pool away from the now frigid waters of Long Island Beach sounds almost safe & idyllic. But drowning can occur at the most unexpected time at even ADA-complaint pool areas. Never take water distances for granted in a pool as every second getting to a drowning person is a matter of life & death to them.

Lifeguard LI stresses the need for quality trained pool head managers & lifeguards, not to be just reserved for their Baywatch stereotypes, but at every event pool-related. We offer Red Cross certification in CPR/AED and training starting with college level applicants to graduates and beyond. Our 2021 alumni are among three tiers of expertise offered from standard, professional, to EMT level Lifeguards for Elite pool & beach events.

A pool party is no party without a Lifeguard LI on the turf. Book one of ours now!


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Hey, I'm Steve Grella, founder of Lifeguard LI. It is my mission to teach every capable person CPR and lifesaving skills. My only question is, do you have what it takes to save a life?


About Our Founder

Steve Grella is a father of two young boys. He is a Police Detective, EMT, lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, who brings over 20 years of knowledge and expertise in safety and service. He has dedicated his life to educating students in vital lifesaving training and now strives to provide expert resources to arm you with the skills and training to one day save a life if called upon.

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