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Drowning: the real signs you need to watch out for

2 minute read

If TV shows and movies are anything to go by, you can tell a person is drowning by their heavy splashing and yelling, but what most people don't know is that Hollywood couldn't be further from the truth.

The real signs of drowning are much more silent, so much so that approximately half of drownings in the United States that occur with children under 15, happen within 22-metres of their parents or another adult.

This is because when we're truly at the point of drowning, people are generally physiologically unable to call for help. Your respiratory system is designed for breathing first and talking (or yelling) second; so when you're drowning, your body focuses on getting breath, as opposed to yelling for help. This is one of the characteristics of an Instinctive Drowning Response.

Another TV-sign of drowning is someone waving for help, but the opposite is actually true. When someone is drowning, their natural reflexes will usually drive them to extend their arms across the water (laterally) and push down on the surface. This allows them to get enough leverage to lift their mouth out of the water occasionally. Ultimately, they can't wave for help, in fact most of the time they can't move voluntarily much at all, because they're trying their hardest to keep their mouth out of the water.

It's important to know that from the time a person's instinctive drowning response starts until the time they become fully submerged is only 20-60 seconds – less than a minute between life and death.

It's just seconds from the time a person's drowning response starts to the time they're submerged – less than a minute between life and death.

So, does the person who is kicking and yelling in the water still need help?

Yes. Someone who is struggling in the water, waving their arms and making noise still needs assistance. However, they are not necessarily drowning, they are in aquatic distress. This is when someone realises they're in trouble, but they still have the mental and physical capacity to get assistance.

Regardless of whether you live close to the water or not, all Australians should learn to swim and have appropriate first aid training; in fact, a number of our Extras policies help pay for the cost of first aid training under the 'Healthier Lifestyle Benefit'. Check out Online Services to see if you're covered, or contact us to find out more about our Extras cover.

Statistics and recommendations from On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006.

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