Drowning Looks Different From What You Think

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.

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. (Click on the next page to view a video of what happens in an actual 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.

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Denise Morley
Denise Morley4 years ago

I did not know.. Thank you.

Alison A.
Alison A4 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth O.
Elizabeth O4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Barry T.
Barry AWAY T4 years ago

Very good article - I did not know this before ,and am very glad I do know it now.

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider4 years ago

Sound info thanku

Valerie A.
Valerie A4 years ago


Sankarasub N.
Sankarasub N4 years ago


Antoinette Harris

good info especially with some many kids getting out of school and hitting the water.

Jennifer Kopp
Jennifer Evans4 years ago

I have witnessed three people drowning in my life (all three were thankfully saved in time or resuscitated) and people knowing the signs is what saved each of them. Good post!

Veronica C.
Veronica C4 years ago

Hopefully the lifeguards know what to look for when they have crowds in a pool or beach.