15 Ways to Help Prevent Drownings This Summer

Thousands of People Die Annually from Drowning, Here’s What You Need to Know

Summer is here, making pools, beaches and water parks a great way to beat the heat. While the water might be fun, danger is always lurking. 

Drowning is the fifth leading cause of accidental death in the United States, but it can easily be prevented by educating children and adults about water safety and lifesaving.

As summer heats up and pools and beaches become crowded, take a minute to read these tips -- and share them with your loved ones. Help protect yourself and your family from becoming victims of unintentional drowning this season.

15. Know Who Is at Risk

If you think only children are at risk of drowning you would be wrong. Only 20 percent of fatal drowning victims are under the age of 14; of those victims, nearly 80 percent are male.

Your ethnicity also plays a role. The fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans is significantly higher than that of whites, with the greatest disparity among 11 and 12-year-olds. In this age group, African Americans drown at rates 10 times those of whites.

14. Know What Factors Influence Your Risk

Seven main factors increase your risk of drowning:

  • Lack of swimming ability: Many adults and children report that they can't swim. The CDC advises enrolling children ages 1 to 4 in swimming lessons to lower the risk of drowning.
  • Lack of barriers: Barriers such as pool fencing prevent young children from entering the pool without supervision. Adding a four-sided fence around pools reduces a child’s risk of drowning by 83 percent compared to a three-sided fencing.
  • Lack of close supervision: Lifeguards and adult supervision do not eliminate the risk of drowning. Drowning can happen quickly and quietly in pools, bathtubs and buckets without someone noticing. Always keep an eye on children and poor swimmers around any type of water.
  • Location: People of different ages drown in different locations. Most children ages 1 to 4 drown in home swimming pools, and more than half of fatal and nonfatal drownings among people 15 years and older occur in natural water settings, including lakes, rivers and oceans.
  • Failure to wear life jackets: Life jackets should be worn by swimmers of all ages, especially during water sports including boating and jet skiing. In 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that in 88 percent of boating-related drownings victims were not wearing life jackets. (See Number 8 for more on life jackets)
  • Alcohol use: Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation and about 20 percent of boating deaths.
  • Seizure disorders: For persons with seizure disorders, drowning is the most common cause of unintentional injury death. That risk is highest in the bathtub.

13. Know (and Be Honest About) Your Swimming Level


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About 80 percent of Americans surveyed by the American Red Cross said they could swim, but only 56 percent could perform all five of the Red Cross’ basic swimming skills (jumping into the water over your head, returning to the surface to tread water for one minute, turning around in a full circle and then finding an exit, swimming 25 yards to an exit and exiting from the water without using a ladder).

Being realistic about your swimming level can help prevent you from entering into water situations in which you could potentially drown.

12. Know How to Swim

Lessons aren't just for children. Strong swimming skills significantly reduce the risk of drowning, but only two percent of adults and 20 percent of children ages 4 to 17 plan to take lessons this summer, according to the Red Cross.

"Parents across the country can enroll their child in Red Cross swim lessons and download the free Red Cross Swim App to track a child’s swim progress and water competency," said Connie Harvey, director of the Red Cross Centennial Initiative. “Adults need to know how to be safe in the water even before they can protect their children and can take a Red Cross swim course for adults. But just as importantly, parents should learn about water safety and know how to respond to a water emergency."

11. Know How to Reduce the Risk of Drowning at Home

Children, and adults who have been drinking, can easily wander or fall into home pools and drown. Adding a four-sided fencing area that is at least four feet tall significantly reduces that risk.

The CDC advises using self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children. They also recommend additional barriers like automatic door locks and alarms to prevent access or alert you if someone enters the pool area.

In addition to fencing, removing floats, balls and other toys from the pool area immediately after use helps reduce children’s temptation to enter the area unsupervised.

10. Know About Ocean Safety

Many beaches do not have lifeguards, so swimmers’ safety is their own responsibility. There are several things you can do to ensure your day at the beach does not end in tragedy.

  • Learn the meaning of colored beach flags. Many beaches use the flags to indicate unsafe ocean conditions like high waves and dangerous sea life. USA Today has a comprehensive list of the flags, but be sure to get an official list from your local beach's law enforcement.
  • Rip currents can pull even the strongest swimmers far from shore. If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore. Once free of the current, swim diagonally toward shore. Learn more about rip current safety through the National Weather Service.
  • Use the buddy system. When entering the water, take a friend or family member with you.
  • Keep an eye on children and smaller adults in the water. Waves can knock swimmers down and keep them submerged, increasing the risk of drowning.
  • Avoid swimming near rocks. Swimmers can be seriously injured if they are knocked into rock formations.

9. Know About Open Natural Water Safety

Water sports like kayaking are thrilling, but failing to be safe can result in serious consequences.

The National Park Service advises kayakers to use the buddy system, let a friend or family member know the details of your plans prior to departure and always obtain current weather and sea conditions before entering the water.

Find a complete list of safety guidelines on the Park Service’s website.

8. Know How to Choose a Life Jacket

The U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Resource Center provides a full list of guidelines and recommendations for choosing a safe life jacket. Some things to know:

  • Certain life jackets are designed to keep your head above water to help you breathe
  • Adult-sized life jackets will not work for children
  • To work correctly, a life jacket must be worn, fit snugly and not allow children’s chin or ears to slip through
  • Life jackets should be tested for wear and buoyancy at least once a year
  • A life jacket, especially a snug-fitting floatation coat, can help you survive in cold water

Find a full list of guidelines and more information about how to properly size a life jacket on the Coast Guard's website.

7. Know the Risks of Delayed Drowning

Drowning can happen even after someone is rescued from the water. Delayed, or "dry," drowning occurs when the airway closes up due to spasms caused by the presence of water.

Dry drowning usually happens within 24 hours of a water rescue and can also be the result of liquid in the lungs.

Look for continued coughing, trouble breathing, chest pain, fatigue and changes in behavior in rescued persons. If you see these symptoms, immediately call 911 or seek medical attention.

6. Know How to Recognize an Emergency

Recognizing a distressed swimmer can be difficult. The Red Cross advises to never assume that a swimmer in distress is joking or playing around and to take their signals very seriously.

A swimmer in distress may still try to swim, but make no forward progress. If they are not helped, they will become an "active" drowning victim. Active drowning victims may try to press down with the arms at the side in an instinctive attempt to keep their head above water.

Active victims will become "passive" if not rescued, and will float motionless and face down on the bottom or near the surface of the water.

5. Know How to Respond to an Emergency

If you notice someone is missing, always check the water FIRST. If you see a person drowning, reach for them from land or throw them a flotation device—if you enter the water, they may panic and latch on to you, dragging you down with them.

Always call 911 and contact life-saving personnel, if possible.

4. Know How to Use Your Phone to Promote Water Safety

The American Red Cross recently launched a free Swim App to promote water safety for parents and caregivers of young people learning how to swim. The app is iPhone, Android and Kindle Fire friendly, and allows users to track their child’s progress and help teach them key skills and goals for different swim levels.

"The free Red Cross Swim App allows parents to track their child’s progress and to reinforce what he or she learned in swim lessons," said Brad Rounds, Health & Safety Lead Training Specialist. "The drowning prevention and water safety content in the Swim App is also helpful for those who aren't enrolled in lessons."

3. Know Who Can Save a Life

According to the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, untrained people witnessing a drowning incident may avoid becoming involved and could possibly prevent trained lifeguards from initiating rescue because they fear taking responsibility.

If you think you see someone drowning, do not hesitate to alert a lifeguard, even if you're not sure what drowning looks like or think you might be wrong.

2. Know How to Stay Safe in the Water

The CDC provides a list of tips to help you stay safe in the water.

  • Supervise when in or around water: Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while in the bath and all children swimming or playing near the water. Be close enough to reach a child at all times. Adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity while supervising children, even if lifeguards are present.
  • Use the buddy system: Always swim with a buddy. Select swimming sites that have lifeguards whenever possible.
  • Seizure disorder safety: If you or a family member has a seizure disorder, provide one-on-one supervision around water, including swimming pools. Consider taking showers rather than using a bath tub for bathing. Always wear life jackets when boating.
  • Learn to swim: Formal swimming lessons can protect children from drowning, but are not a reason to avoid constant supervision around the water.
  • Learn CPR: In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could save a victim’s life.
  • Know what makes something a safety device: Air-filled and foam toys are NOT safety devices. Water wings, tubes and noodles are not a substitute for life jackets and are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
  • Avoid alcohol: Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming and water sports. Never drink alcohol when supervising young swimmers.
  • Protect swimmers: Do not let swimmers hyperventilate before swimming underwater or try to hold their breath for extended periods of time. This can cause them to pass out and drown.
  • Know weather conditions: Strong winds and thunderstorms can rapidly change water conditions. Always check local weather forecasts before going to the beach, pool or natural water source.

1. Know How to Educate Others

Staying safe in the water is a community effort. Share this post with friends and family to help them educate themselves about how to stay safe this summer, sign up for adult swimming lessons with friends or register for CPR training with your family. Who knows, you might just save a life.

This story was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2017.

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