First Aid for Drowning: Symptoms & How to Perform

Boy helping drowning child girl in swimming pool by doing CPR

Drowning is not an uncommon occurrence. It can happen anywhere, any time, to anyone. Sometimes, even if you are alert, the threat of drowning is still there.

The most common incidents of drowning and near-drowning accidents involve young children. However, this is not to say that drowning does not occur in adults. Again, anyone can be a victim of drowning.

A quick look into drowning: the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 10 people die from it every day. Furthermore, at least 1 in 5 people who die from drowning are children ages 14 and younger.

Drowning has been ranked as the 5th leading cause of accidental deaths in the US by the CDC, and the 3rd leading cause of accidental deaths worldwide by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Furthermore, WHO reports that more than half of the world’s drowning incidents take place in the Western Pacific Region and Southeast Asia Region.

Drowning is fatal and must be given urgent medical attention if the person becomes unresponsive. Calling a private ambulance service ensures that the person gets the medical treatment they need.

Below is a quick guide on drowning, its possible causes, the proper first-aid treatment when someone is drowning, and prevention tips. Also, learn how to perform proper CPR when accidents happen with our child first aid course.

What is Drowning?

Drowning is a form of suffocation that takes place with the submersion of the mouth or the nose in liquid, usually a body of water. What happens is that the respiratory system is impaired because of the water intake, hindering the person from breathing properly or any at all. At this point, when the heart does not get any oxygen access the body can shut down.

On average, people are capable of holding their breath for 30 seconds. For children, this time is relatively shorter. People who are in good health, as well as those who have undergone underwater training, can hold their breath for 2 minutes, and even that is not so long a time.

If a person has been left underwater for about 4 to 6 minutes without resuscitation, this can lead to damages to the brain.

Anyone can die from drowning in just seconds. And while not always resulting in death, near-drowning experiences can cause morbidity and still need medical attention.

Five Stages of Drowning

Drowning undergoes 5 stages that can happen in roughly 10 to 12 minutes.

The stages of drowning go like this:

  1. When the water is inhaled, the person goes into a state of fight-or-flight, gasping for breath for a few seconds.
  2. To prevent more water from getting into the lungs, the airway starts to constrict. As this happens, the person will start to hold their breath involuntarily for 2 minutes. After this, they may lose consciousness.
  3. Once the person becomes unconscious, resuscitation can be performed to revive them. Oftentimes, there is a good chance that they can survive. However, for a few minutes, their breathing can also stop while the heart slows down.
  4. Once the heart slows down, the body slowly enters a state of hypoxic convulsion. This state is when the person appears to have a seizure. The absence of oxygen access can make the person’s body turn blue and start making jerking movements.
  5. The brain, heart, and lungs reach the final stage of drowning called cerebral hypoxia. This is when the brain does not get enough oxygen.

After these stages, what follows is clinical death.

First-Aid Treatment for Drowning

Death by drowning often happens with the absence of a lifeguard or a trained medical professional. If you happen to witness a near-drowning accident, you can try and save the person. However, only do this if it does not compromise your safety.

What to do if someone is drowning?

With a clear presence of mind, here are the right set of actions and tips that you can take to rescue someone from drowning:

  • If the person drowning is still conscious, use life-saving flotation devices like life rings and throw ropes.
  • Only try to save an unconscious person in the water if you are confident about your swimming abilities and skills.
  • If the person has stopped breathing, make sure to perform rescue breathing immediately. Be ready to perform CPR and chest compressions, which are both equally important in providing oxygen to the victim, and increasing oxygen flow to the blood.
  • When handling the person and giving them CPR, do not turn their head or neck as doing so could make the person sustain neck or spinal injuries. Use towels around the neck to hold it in place. You can also manually hold it while giving CPR, just be careful not to move it.
  • If the near-drowning incident took place in cold water, make sure to remove their clothes and immediately cover them with warm blankets. This prevents them from falling into hypothermic shock.

Ideally, there are several people present on the scene that could extend help to the drowning victim, one should begin providing CPR while someone else calls for medical help. However, if only one person is present at the scene, he or she should spend a minute performing CPR on the victim before calling for emergency services.

After-drowning observation and care

A person who has suffered a near-drowning accident should be closely monitored for possible health complications. The complications develop depending on how long These complications may manifest in the form of:

  • Pneumonia
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Brain damage
  • Chemical and fluid imbalance in the body
  • A permanent vegetative state

Drowning Prevention Tips

Because drowning incidents can take place quickly, taking early initiative in preventing any incident of it from happening goes a long way.

Here are some prevention practices that you can take into account:

  • Establish fenced areas for pools and lakes.
    If you have a home pool or you live near a body of water, make sure to create barriers that would prevent the children or elderly from gaining access to the area and hindering unsupervised swimming that could lead to a drowning incident.
  • Invest in swimming lessons.
    Drowning risks are higher with children between the ages of 5 and 14. This is also the best time to take them to a licensed instructor with CPR certification for swimming lessons. Doing so lets them become familiar with water and know about water safety. Furthermore, these lessons instill in them the dangers of drowning, creating a sense of urgency and awareness. Adults can also take swimming lessons. Swimming lessons are largely beneficial in lessening the drowning rates all over the world.
  • Do not leave children unattended when in water.
    The CDC has stated that the leading cause of accidental child death in the US is drowning in children between 1 and 4. So whether it’s in the tub, in the shower, or even a mini-pool, always look after your kids. Remember that toddlers can drown even in shallow water.
  • Always be ready with the inflatables.
    If you are planning on spending time in a pool or a beach, ensure that there are devices and flotation aids that are ready for use by anyone in case they failed to gauge the depth of the pool or the body of water. Furthermore, kids, especially those who are still unable to swim without supervision, should always be fitted with life jackets or “swimmies.”
  • Limit your alcohol intake when you’re planning on swimming.
    It’s not a good idea to consume alcohol when you are going for a swim. You can drink a few, but make sure that you are not drinking too much to the point of intoxication as this could result in a drowning incident.
  • Learn CPR.
    Knowing how to perform CPR is a skill that comes in very handy, not just when someone is drowning. CPR creates the difference between life and death. While waiting for emergency help to arrive, CPR can act as a first-aid action when needed. You can learn more about proper first-aid responses for drowning with our CPR AED certified course.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, you can drown and not die. Although, the more appropriate term is a near-drowning experience. It is a stage of drowning where you feel like you are about to die from suffocating underwater. If you survive a near-drowning experience, there is the possibility that you can develop health complications from this incident which can include pneumonia, brain damage, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

The stages of drowning happen between 10 and 12 minutes. Beyond that, death can take place. If you are going to revive someone who has drowned, do it in 10 to 12 minutes from the moment they first plunged into the water.

The truth is drowning can happen even if there is not a lot of water. People can drown in bathtubs, lakes, and even small puddles. Factors like age, weight, and respiratory health play into consideration how much liquid can cause the person’s lungs to give in.

Several studies reveal that it takes 1 milliliter of fluid for every kilogram of body weight for a person to drown.

Yes, CPR helps in filling in the oxygen that the person has lost while drowning. Perform this, together with chest compressions to increase the person’s oxygen flow through their bloodstream. Doing so can prevent other complications that could develop.

If someone is drowning, do not attempt to save them if it is unsafe for you to do so or if you are not confident with your swimming abilities. Furthermore, don’t just jump in. Throw in first a lifesaving device like a life ring, a throw rope, or a pool noodle. This minimises the risk of casualties.

Drowning has 5 stages. The later stages involve hypoxic convulsion, where the person starts jerking as in a seizure. This happens due to the lack of oxygen. In this state, the body turns blue as well.

After this, cerebral hypoxia occurs. This is the final stage of drowning. This state is when the brain, heart, and lungs can no longer be revived. After this, the body is pronounced clinically dead.

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