Drowning: A deadly calmness

Easter weekend approaches, time to remind you all of the dangers of drowning. 

Drowning is not a noisy, dramatic event. Our body’s response to suffocation by water is quite different to the commonly held view that it involves waving arms and shouting for help. That comes before you are drowning. At that point you are in a state known as “aquatic distress” and can still assist in your own rescue by grabbing at floatation devices. If you aren’t saved at this point you quickly pass to drowning. Then, instinct takes over.

In an article in the US Coastguards ‘On Scene’ magazine Dr Francesco Pia, Phd, describes what he terms ‘the instinctive drowning response’ as follows:

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. 

Drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water for from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

So, if someone dives, jumps or falls overboard and appears to be calm, don’t assume they are not in trouble. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. Talk to them. Ask them: Are you OK? If they reply immediately, they’re probably fine. If they just look blank there’s a chance that they are drowning and you must act quickly to assist them.

Keep a watch on people playing in the water and look for these other signs of drowning:

Head tilted back with mouth open.
Head low in the water, mouth at water level
Eyes closed or glassy and unfocused
Vertical in the water, not using legs
Hyperventilating or gasping
Attempting to swim but not making headway
Attempting to roll over on the back

If the kids are screaming and splashing, be thankful – they’re not drowning. If they go unnaturally quite, that’s the time to worry. One day this knowledge may save someone’s life.