I always thought it would be fairly obvious to recognize the signs of someone drowning. After all, I know how to swim, I understand what can go wrong, I have three children and so I’m a fairly practiced parent and adult. It came as a big shock to me that it’s not as easy as you think to spot the signs of drowning.

As it turns out pretty much all I knew about drowning I had simply picked up from TV and film interpretations of drowning. I understood shouting, waving, cries for help and repeated sinking and spluttering as the actor came up again were pretty much spot on when it came to how a drowning would occur. This however is as far from what happens in real life as you can get. All the above, including the waving and screaming are only there for our entertainment, because in practice drowning is a pretty silent and still process!

What happens to someone who is drowning:

  • A person who is drowning is physiologically unable to call for help.The body’s instinctive and primal response is to try and breath. If it can’t do that it won’t be able to whisper let alone shout. Breathing must happen, before speech can occur.
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappearabove the surface. In most instances the mouth of someone drowning are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. At the point their mouths are above the surface they only have time to exhale and inhale shallowly, they do not have time to cry for help or shout.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Instinct forces them to extend their arms out sideways and try and press down on the water’s surface, in an attempt to push themselves up and get their mouth above the water.
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily perform movements such as moving toward a rescuer, or even reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  • From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. Therefore, it’s imperative to react fast if you think someone might be drowning.

So how do you spot a potential drowning?

There are several tell-tale signs to watch for in a swimmer you think may be in trouble in the water. A person in trouble need not display all the below but even one or two of these signs should be enough for you to go ahead and intervene and ask if they need help.

1. Is the swimmers head low in the water with their mouth just visible for more than 30 seconds?
2.  Is the head tilted back and mouth open?
3. Do they have unfocused or glassy staring eyes?
4. Or are their eyes closed?
5. Is their hair over their face or eyes and hasn’t been pushed back?
6. Are they vertical in the water i.e. not using their legs to swim?
7. Are they gasping or breathing very quickly?
8. Are they trying to roll on their back?
9. Do they look like they are trying to climb an invisible ladder?


It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry, even in crowded holiday parks and communal pools drowning occurs.

The statistics for drowning in the US are as high as ever in fact it’s the main cause of accidental death in children. Whilst it’s vital to teach your kids to swim, it’s just as important to understand how to identify a person in trouble in water and then what to do should it happen. So get yourself aware, take note of the points above and be on guard whenever you are in or around the water. We can all be lifeguards to our children, friends and strangers if we know what to look for.

Safe & Happy Splashing

The Splash Lab