The Surprising Signs of Drowning Adults Don’t Know About

Family Health, Featured Article, Fitness, Healthy Living, Outdoor Activity
on June 6, 2013

Drowning is surprisingly almost always a quiet event, so quiet that it’s the No.2 cause of accidental death in children under the age of 15. 750 children will drown next year with 375 of those incidents happening within 25 yards of a parent or other adult, according to a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An article written in 2006 in the Journal of U.S Coast Guard Search and Rescue titled “It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning” is spreading across media this week as a result of a post on It breaks down the signs of what Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., calls the Instinctive Drowning Response, which is what a person actually does when they are drowning.

In the article Dr. Pia describes the 5 clues 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.”

Other common signs of drowning can include glassy or closed eyes, head low in the water with mouth at water level, hair over the forehead or eyes and appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder.

Click here to learn more about Child Swimming Safety from pediatrician Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann.