Drowning Looks Different From What You Think

This article originally published on June 6, 2013. We are sharing it again now, as swimming weather approaches in the northern hemisphere.

I am not going to sugarcoat this: approximately 750 children will drown this year, and of those 750, about half of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or guardian.

Children still run the risk of drowning, even if they are strong swimmers and the highest standards of safety are maintained at the pool, lake, or local beach. Children get cramps, get caught in rip currents, suffer exhaustion, or just panic, and a few hundred times a year, someone misses the telltale signs and the results are tragic.

Drowning Doesn't Look the Way You Think It Does

What Drowning Really Looks Like

Knowing what drowning looks like can, and will, make all the difference when a child (or adult even) is in jeopardy.

First off, it doesn’t look anything like it does on TV or in the movies. No one is bobbing above the water waving frantically and calling out for help. Drowning is most often a quiet and subtle thing, with the victim going into an instinctive mode (called the Instinctive Drowning Response) that puts them bobbing up and down just at the surface of the water.

Here is what to look for, as described by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., to identify someone struggling not to drown:

  • 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

As it is said in the Slate.com article that first caught my attention on the subject, sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.

The best thing to do is simple; ask them if they are OK. If you get no response, it is best to act, or find someone immediately to effectively address the situation and save the person in danger.

Please be safe, aware, and always helpful when you are able. Such tragedies can be averted.

Related at Care2


Cindy S
Past Member 3 days ago


Marija M
Marija M14 days ago


Carole R
Carole R14 days ago

I hope to never see or experience this. But now I know what to look for if I should.

Lesa D
Lesa D14 days ago

watch your kids around water!

Lesa D
Lesa D14 days ago

thank you Eric...

Sophie L
Sophie L15 days ago


Melanie St. Germaine


Lorraine A
Lorraine A16 days ago

Thanks for sharing that.

Ramesh B
Ramesh B17 days ago


Lisa M
Lisa M19 days ago