If you spend time on water or on the shore (and everyone does that from time to time), you should make sure that you and the people around you know even before entering the water how to determine that a person is drowning.
When a person is drowning, it is rarely accompanied by any sound. Waving hands, splashes and screams, which are frequently shown on TV, are very rare in real life.
What people do to avoid actual or supposed suffocation when immersed in water is called Instinctive Drowning Response, as dubbed by PhD Francesco A. Pia. It looks not the way most people think. There are no waving hands, splashing and yelling for help. To get a better idea of how quiet and invisible this might look from the shore, consider this: drowning is the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 15 (right after traffic accidents). Of approximately 750 children, who will drown next year, every second child will drown at a distance of not more than 20 meters away from their parents or other adults.
In some cases, an adult will actually see the child drowning, but will not suspect what really happens.
Drowning people rarely look like drowning people. In a scientific article published in the journal On Scene, owned by the Coast Guard, Dr. Pia describes the instinctive drowning response as follows.
Drowning people are usually physiologically unable to call for help. Human respiratory system is designed for breathing. Speech is its secondary function. Before it is possible, one must recover the function of respiration.
The mouth of a drowning person alternately goes under water and appears above its surface. The mouth of a drowning person stays above water long enough to just breathe and call for help. When a drowning person emerges from the water, he/she has just a little time, which is enough to quickly exhale and inhale. Then the mouth immediately goes under the water again.
Drowning people cannot move their hands to attract attention. They instinctively pull their hands apart in an attempt to push away from the water. Such movements allow them to float on the surface to be able to breathe.
Instinctive reactions of drowning people prevent them from controlling the movements of their hands. Trying to stay on the surface of the water, people are not physiologically able to stop drowning and perform meaningful movements, such as waving their arms and trying to approach the rescuers or reach rescue equipment.
From beginning to end, as long as the instinctive reaction continues, the body of a drowning man remains in a vertical position, without the slightest sign of support from the feet. If a trained rescuer does not pull the person out of the water, a drowning man can hold on the surface from 20 to 60 seconds before completely submerging under water.
This does not mean that a person calling for help and desperately waving his/her hands is deceiving you. Most likely, there is a panic attack in water. Such an attack is not always preceded by an instinctive reaction of a drowning person and often lasts a very short period of time. Unlike the real drowning, victims of such panic in water can help their rescuers and for example, grab a lifering.
When you are on the beach or in the water, you need to pay close attention to the following signs of a drowning person:
- The victim’s head is immersed in water, and the mouth is at its surface;
- The head is drawn back, the mouth is open;
- Glassy, empty eyes are not focused;
- The victim’s eyes are closed;
- Hair is covering the forehead or eyes;
- The victim is kept in water in an upright position without making any footwork;
- The victim’s breathing is frequent and superficial; he/she gulps air;
- The person is trying to swim in a certain direction, but in vain;
- The person is trying to roll over on the back;
- It may seem that the victim is climbing the ladder.
Therefore, even if a person is overboard but everything looks fine, be alert. Sometimes the most important sign that a person is drowning is that he/she does not look like a drowning person.
It may seem that he/she is just trying to stay on the water and look at the deck. How to determine if everything is OK? Ask a simple question, “Are you all right?”
If the person replies at least something, then perhaps he/she is not in danger. If the only answer to your question is a vacant look, you will have only half a minute to pull the victim out of the water.
Parents should also remember that the children playing in water make noise. If they stop making noise, take them out of water and find out why.
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