Kicking back by the pool, on the beach, or while boating with a beer, a glass of wine, or another alcoholic beverage might seem like a great way to relax. However, significant risks are associated with drinking alcohol on or in the water.
Alcohol and Drowning: Unpacking the Facts
The statistics surrounding alcohol-related drownings are shocking. According to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation.
Alcohol is the number one contributing factor in recreational boating deaths, according to the US Coast Guard. A person operating a boat with a blood alcohol level over 0.1 percent (approximately four to five drinks in about an hour) is 16 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than one who doesn’t consume alcohol. And the boat operator isn’t the only one impacted by alcohol. Inebriated passengers risk slipping and falling overboard from the deck or at the dock.
Alcohol consumption also increases the risk of adolescent and teen drowning. Compounding the risk for this age group is that the frontal lobe that controls impulse control and decision-making is not yet fully developed.
How Alcohol Increases the Risk of Drowning
Understanding the physiological effects of alcohol helps to uncover why it increases the risk of drowning. Two of the key ways alcohol influences the body include:
Impaired Judgment and Movement
Alcohol impairs balance, coordination, and judgment, which is detrimental in any situation but can be deadly when in or near water. The nervous system is affected by alcohol, diminishing motor control. When inebriated, a person may struggle with simple tasks like walking, let alone swimming. Consuming alcohol makes it far more challenging to stay afloat or swim to safety.
In addition, alcohol hinders cognitive functions, including a person’s decision-making abilities. Intoxicated individuals are more likely to take risks, like swimming in unsafe areas or unsafe conditions. For example, swimmers may overestimate their abilities, underestimate the distance to the shore, or misjudge the water’s depth.
Consuming alcohol can also distort your judgment while supervising children in or on the water.
Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate, or widen, known as vasodilation. It increases the flow of warm blood to the surface of your skin, creating a temporary sense of warmth. However, this also allows for more rapid heat loss to the environment, especially in cold conditions like water. So, even though you might feel warm initially, your body is losing heat quicker than it would otherwise.
Alcohol also affects the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms, which maintain your core body temperature. It can hinder the body’s ability to recognize and respond to cold, increasing the risk of hypothermia.
Because alcohol can impair your judgment and motor control, it may be more challenging to recognize the signs of hypothermia or to take appropriate actions to prevent it.
Understanding the risks is the first step toward preventing alcohol-related drownings. However, reducing the risks also requires implementing effective preventive measures such as:
Public Education and Awareness
Increased education about the dangers of combining alcohol and water-related activities can influence behavior changes. Public health campaigns, like the UK’s Royal Life Saving Society’s “Don’t Drink and Drown, ” raised awareness about the dangers of mixing alcohol and water activities.
Enforcement of laws against operating boats or other watercraft while under the influence of alcohol can reduce alcohol-related drowning incidents. Policymakers can also consider regulations restricting alcohol consumption near or on the water.
Encouraging responsible drinking habits, like limiting or avoiding alcohol intake during water-based activities, and designating sober supervisors, can significantly decrease the risk of drowning.
Working Together To Prevent Drowning
The connection between alcohol and drowning is a significant public health issue. Understanding and addressing the deadly correlation can save countless lives and ensure everyone safely enjoys water activities. Safety should always be the top priority when near, in, or on the water.
Stay informed, stay sober, and stay safe.
Together, we can end drowning and save lives and heartache! Take our Water Safety Challenge to measure your family’s water safety competence, and help us provide water safety outreach to schools and community groups to keep all kids safe.