Recognizing the Signs of Drowning: What to Look For and How to React - Stop Drowning Now

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Recognizing the Signs of Drowning: What to Look For and How to React

Drowning is a silent and often unseen killer, happening right under the noses of those nearby without anyone realizing it. Do you know what drowning looks like and what to do? 

Recognizing the signs of drowning is crucial because an immediate response can save lives. It’s one of the leading causes of accidental death, particularly among children. However, many people don’t recognize the signs of someone drowning. Movies often depict drowning victims thrashing wildly and calling for help, but in reality, drowning is usually silent and difficult to detect.

Drowning is more common than many people realize. Ten people die from unintentional drowning every day in the US, making it the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes. Although children are at the highest risk of drowning, anyone can drown. There are nearly 4,000 fatal unintentional drownings yearly in the US, including boating-related drownings.

Subtle Signs of Drowning 

Please take a moment to learn the subtle indicators of drowning, understand the necessary actions, and explore reliable sources for further reading. Your awareness and quick action can make all the difference.

Head Low in the Water

A drowning person’s head will often be low in the water, with their mouth at water level. They may appear to be gasping or unable to keep their head above water.

Glassy or Empty Eyes

A drowning person may have glassy, unfocused, or empty eyes. They may also be unable to make eye contact.

Hyperventilation or Gasping

Rapid or labored breathing is common as the person struggles to get air. It can look like gasping or hyperventilating.

Vertical Position

Drowning individuals often remain vertical in the water and might not use their legs to kick. It starkly contrasts swimmers who typically use coordinated arm and leg movements.


If you call out to someone and they do not respond, they could be in trouble. Drowning individuals often cannot respond to auditory cues.

Quiet Struggle

Most drowning incidents are silent. The person will not be able to shout or wave for help due to their focus on breathing.

How to React When You See the Signs of Drowning

Recognizing these signs allows for prompt action. Here’s how to respond effectively:

Alert a Lifeguard

If a lifeguard is present, alert them immediately. They are trained to handle such emergencies swiftly.

Call Emergency Services

Call emergency services (911 in the US) if a lifeguard is unavailable. Provide clear details about the location and nature of the emergency.

Attempt a Rescue if Safe

The safest way to help someone drowning is to throw a lifesaving device, towel, rope, or pool noodle at the person in the water, wait until they grab hold, and then tow the person to safety. Panic can cause a person to obstruct someone from being able to swim or stay above the water. The panicked drowning victim can grab hold of anything, including the person trying to save them and pull them down. Entering the water should be a last resort.

If you need to enter the water to save someone from drowning, it is best to approach them from behind to lessen the likelihood that they’ll grab onto you and pull you under the water.

Provide CPR

If the person is unresponsive and not breathing, begin CPR immediately after removing them from the water. Use the steps of checking for breathing, performing chest compressions, and delivering rescue breaths as necessary.

Monitor the Person

Even after rescue, monitor the person for any delayed symptoms of drowning, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or confusion. Seek medical attention immediately if any of these symptoms appear.

Everyone Can Help Prevent Drowning

People always think a drowning accident couldn’t happen to them, yet it can. So don’t be haunted by “If only I’d known what to look for” or “If only I’d known what to do.” Instead, follow the guidelines to react in a drowning situation.

Understanding the subtle signs of drowning and knowing how to react can save lives. Staying vigilant and prepared can make a difference in an emergency. Always prioritize safety, and never hesitate to call for professional help when needed.

By following these guidelines, you can be better prepared to recognize the signs of drowning and respond effectively, potentially saving a life.

Stay informed, stay safe, and always keep an eye on those in the water.

Together, we can end the heartache of losing a loved one due to drowning. Take our Water Safety Challenge to measure your family or community’s water safety competence, and help us provide water safety outreach to schools and community groups to keep everyone safe.