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June 6, 2013 by APRIL McCARTHY
Do You Know What Drowning Really Looks Like? How To Spot Signs of Trouble In The Water This Summer


Most people assume that a drowning person will splash, yell, and wave for help; and why wouldn't they? That's what we see on television. Without training, we are conditioned first to think of drowning as a violent struggle that is noisy and physical. It's not. On average, experts have about 40 seconds to both spot the troubled swimmer and get to them before they submerge. Here's what to look for.



Why does one person think that there is no immediate danger, and another think that danger is imminent? If you picture what you think a person looks when when they are on the verge of drowning, do you see them waving their arms and yelling for help? That might be what happens in movies, but in real life, it's a much different scene.

The Instinctive Drowning Response represents a person's attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water. The suffocation in water triggers a constellation of autonomic nervous system responses that result in external, unlearned, instinctive drowning movements that are easily recognizable by trained rescue crews but difficult for the general population to detect.

Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 real trouble - they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn't last long - but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these 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

So if somebody falls overboard and everything looks OK, don't be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don't look like they're drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, "Are you alright?" If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents: children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Sources:
uscg.mil
mariovittone.com

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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