Posted On: June 14, 2013 by Patrick A. Malone

Drowning Victims Don’t Look Like They’re in Trouble

It’s summer, and time for a reminder that drowning is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children 15 and younger (No. 1 is vehicle accidents). Astonishingly, about half the children who will drown in a year, according to a story on Slate.com reprinted from a blog by Mario Vittone, will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.

How is this possible? Isn’t it obvious when someone is in trouble in the water? Doesn’t he or she thrash, struggle and yell for help?

Actually, no; as the story says, “Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.”

The reason is physiology. The instinctive drowning response, a term coined by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is how people respond when they are suffocating in the water. As Pia describes in an article in On Scene: The Journal of the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, it looks like this:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are unable to yell for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing, and if you can’t breathe, your body makes speech a secondary concern. You have to breathe before you can talk.

2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. Your mouth is not above the surface of the water long enough for you to exhale, inhale and yell for help. You have time only to exhale and inhale before your mouth starts to sink below the surface of the water.

3. Drowning people can’t wave for help. Instinct forces you to extend your arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface to leverage your body so you can lift your mouth out of the water to breathe.

4. During the instinctive drowning response, you can’t voluntarily control your arm movements. If you’re struggling on the surface, you can’t wave for help, move toward a rescuer or reach out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. From beginning to end of the instinctive drowning response your body remains upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting leg kick. Unless rescued by a trained person, you can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Children are particularly at risk, because they generally last only as long as 20 or 30 seconds in the instinctive drowning response.

Someone in the water who is yelling for help and thrashing probably is in real trouble, just not usually the end stages of it. They might be in aquatic distress, which doesn’t always precede the instinctive drowning response, and also doesn’t last long. Unlike true drowning, Vittone writes, these victims still can assist in their own rescue by grabbing grab lifelines, for example. But people nearby have to pay attention—there isn’t much time to help.

Other signs that people in the water are in danger of drowning:


  • 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 body position

  • hyperventilating or gasping

  • trying unsuccessfully to swim in a particular direction

  • trying to roll over on the back

  • appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

So vigilance is key—drowning people don’t usually look like they’re in trouble. They might just look like they are treading water. To find out, ask the person, “Are you all right?” If you get a vocal response, it’s probably OK. If you get a blank stare, you might have fewer than 30 seconds to get to them. Parents should remember that children playing in the water make noise. If they go quiet, get to them quickly.

For other pool safety tips, see our blog, “Surviving the Drowning Season.”

Families interested in learning more about our firm's legal services, including legal representation for children who have suffered serious injuries in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia due to medical malpractice, defective products, birth-related trauma or other injuries, may ask questions or send us information about a particular case by phone or email. There is no charge for contacting us regarding your inquiry. An attorney will respond within 24 hours.

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