Drowning Can Be a Silent Killer: Signs of Drowning and the Importance of Keeping Your Eyes on the Water

Author: Courtney Allen Van Winkle, Personal Injury Attorney, Short Pump, VA

Although it has been almost 15 years and my oldest son is now grown, I still clearly remember my friend Jackie’s words when she cried out, “Is Wil ok?” I turned and saw my 7 year old submerged under water. We were at a friend’s back yard pool and I had been unpacking towels and getting the baby situated in the stroller. Wilson’s terrified eyes were wide open under the water. He was right in the area where the shallow end gradually becomes the deep. He was not ok. I jumped in and pulled him out. He choked and spit up some water but thankfully he was fine. We never heard a sound, not a splash or a call for help. He just went under and couldn’t get back up. I was less than 10 feet away, along with 2 other adults. With 4 kids and a healthy respect (mixed in with a little fear) for water of all types, my friends often teased me about my hyper vigilance around the water. But this scare in my friend’s pool made me realize once again you can never be too cautious around children and water. Things can take a turn for the worse as quickly as you can turn your head.

With summer now in full swing and the weather getting hotter and hotter, families trying to cool off are flocking to beaches and pools. Although this time should be relaxing, it can also be a time of tragedy. Drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under – and half of those children who drown will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.[1]

A common misconception is that drowning is a violent and dramatic act. The reality is that drowning  is deceptively and decidedly undramatic[2]. Dr. Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D. coined the term “Instinctive Drowning Response” to describe the physiology behind a person’s reaction to surface drowning. In an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine Dr. Pia described the “Instinctive Drowning Response” as follows:[3]

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  2. A drowning person’s mouth alternately sinks below and reappears above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning person’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. A person drowning cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits the individual to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, a person who is drowning cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, someone who is struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movement such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, a person’s body remains upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, the person drowning can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

When a person is yelling or thrashing in the water, they are experiencing “Aquatic Distress,” which may or may not be present prior to the “Instinctive Drowning Response.” The difference between “Aquatic Distress” and “Instinctive Drowning Response” is that a person experiencing “Aquatic Distress” can still assist in his or her own rescue.

When you or the people you know and love are around the water, remain vigilant for the following signs of drowning:                                                                                                               

  • The swimmer’s head is low in the water and their mouth is at water level.
  • The swimmer has their head tilted back with their mouth open.
  • Their eyes are glassy and empty and they appear unable to focus.
  • Their eyes are closed.
  • The swimmer’s hair is over their forehead or eyes.
  • They are not using their legs and are vertical in the water.
  • The swimmer is hyperventilating or gasping for air.
  • They are trying to swim in a particular direction but are not making any headway.
  • The swimmer is trying to roll over onto their back.
  • They appear to be climbing an invisible ladder while in the water.

If you and your family are planning on making a trip to the beach or a pool, it is important that you are able to recognize these signs of drowning; especially if there will not be a lifeguard present. Keeping your eyes on the water is important because you may not hear any signs of distress. Being aware of your surroundings at all times and responding quickly  can mean the difference between life and death.

About the Author: Courtney Van Winkle is a personal injury attorney for the law firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen. She works primarily out of the Richmond and Short Pump offices. In a career spanning over 20 years, Courtney has handled personal injury cases including catastrophic injury, brain injury, distracted driving accidents and wrongful death across the state.


[1] Mario Vittone, Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning, SLATE, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/family/2013/06/rescuing_drowning_children_how_to_know_when_someone_is_in_trouble_in_the.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.; http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg534/On%20Scene/OSFall06.pdf

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