Guest Bloggers

Drowning: Know What to Look For

Guest blog by: Arkansas Department of Health with Hope Mullins, MPH – Research Manager, Arkansas Children’s Hospital

When you hear someone is drowning, what image comes to mind? The Hollywood version of loud splashing, waving and frantic cries for help? That is what most people imagine drowning looks like. In reality, drowning is silent and often occurs within eyesight of other people.

According to Coast Guard experts Mario Vittone and Dr. Frank Pia, there are phases to drowning.

Aquatic Distress may involve some shouting and waving. This is not active drowning, but the person realizes they are in trouble and needs help. If someone is in aquatic distress, get them a floatation device and to safety as quickly as possible.

Instinctive Drowning Response occurs in the 20-60 seconds before final submersion. This phase is silent because people are “physiologically unable to call for help” or voluntarily move their arms. Our bodies are designed to breathe first. Instinctively, our arms will extend and push down on the water as a way to get our mouth above the surface. Someone who is in Instinctive Drowning Response cannot move towards a rescuer, reach for safety equipment or call for help. Splashing, waving, and shouting for help all come after the need to breathe. By this point, a person’s sole focus is on trying to get that next breath.

Look for these signs of Instinctive Drowning Response:

  • Appear to be climbing a ladder or pushing on the water surface.
  • Head tilted back.
  • Mouth open or at water level.
  • Eyes closed or unable to focus.
  • Vertical position, but not using legs to kick.
  • Child has gone silent. Kids playing in water are noisy; if they go silent something is wrong.

Rescuing someone in Instinctive Drowning Response can be as dangerous for inexperienced rescuers as it is for the person drowning. That is why we often hear of multiple people drowning at the same time. If it’s necessary for someone inexperienced to attempt a drowning rescue, remember these tips:

  • Call 911.
  • Ask others to help.
  • Try to find some sort of flotation device or boat if in a river or lake.
  • Always keep eyes on the victim.
  • Put a floatation device in the hands, under the arms, or around the victim and pull them out of the water. If that is not possible, grasp them from behind under the arms to pull them towards safety.
  • Approach the victim from behind. This keeps them from grasping on and pulling you under.

For more information on safe swimming visit

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