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More Myths About Drowning


Last week, my editor at Soundings gave me a break and let me repost an article I wrote eight years ago. The piece was first published online at, then on my personal website, and then on literally thousands of other sites, including where it was their most popular article of 2013. The Washington Post also picked it up. When we republished it last week, I thought the article would get some traction with the readers of Soundings, but I did not expect Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning to pass 700,000 Facebook shares in under a week.

It’s as if a whole new group of people learned something they didn’t know. A myth had been busted — and a dangerous one at that — and they just had to tell their friends about it. In the response to the posting, mixed in with the “I had no idea” and the “A must read” comments, were two other myths about drowning that everyone should know. So, if you didn’t read last week’s post, do that now, and then come back here to learn two more important things.

There Is No Such Thing As Dry Drowning

I get a message, email or comment on a post almost weekly asking me to weigh in on Dry Drowning. This message spreads often on social media, mostly because it’s (understandably) terrifying to parents. The idea that your child can go swimming, swallow or choke on some water, and then go home and later drown while he sleeps is scary as hell.

But here’s the thing. Death following complications from aquatic distress do not happen that way. And when it does happen it is extremely rare, presents persistent symptoms for hours before the danger is real, and is not actually a “drowning.” “Dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are not medical terms and are not real dangers worth fearing.

Fluid in the lungs is a bad thing — it can lead to pneumonitis, a non-infectious inflammation of lung tissue, caused by the irritating effects of something bad in the lungs — but this can happen whether the something is dirty water taken on during a swim or by laughing while drinking milk at breakfast. (Dry Milk Drowning isn’t a thing either.)

What should you look for? If your child, or anyone else, gets out of the water and has any symptoms beyond what they might experience after something “goes down the wrong way,” you should have them checked out. If they have persistent heavy coughing that doesn’t stop after a few minutes, you should have them checked out. Usually, these patients are observed for four to six hours and released. If someone coughs for a couple of minutes after getting out of the pool and then acts fine and asks for lunch, it means he or she is fine and wants lunch. You don’t have to call 911.

If you want to get very smart on this topic, read this

Reach, Throw, Row, Don’t Go (Unless You Are Trained): Maybe, Maybe Not

“A person who is drowning will climb on top of you and drown you if you get near them,” says someone every time the issue of rescuing a drowning person is brought up. Yeah - sort of, but not really.

It has happened, and though I’m not discounting the danger of an untrained person performing a rescue, treating every non-lifeguard in the world as someone who will die if he tries to rescue a four-year-old is absurd.

People in aquatic distress or people who are actively drowning are both looking for the same thing — what I call free freeboard. They want their mouths above the water without effort. They want to be standing up or supported by some kind of flotation. Once they feel supported, they no longer pose any danger if you can keep them feeling that way. What lifeguards are trained to do is to enter the water and support drowning victims so that they can easily breathe and are strong enough to get them to safety.

Reaching for someone who is drowning from a secure position is better than throwing something at him. And throwing him flotation is better than wasting time getting to him by boat. But here is the hard truth: if reaching, throwing, or rowing isn’t an option and someone doesn’t go get him, he is going to drown. If you call 911 (or Mayday) and do nothing else, you are calling for a body recovery. And since most of you are not going to be able to stand there and do nothing, here is how you can safely “go” — yes, even though you are untrained: bring flotation with you.

I’ve seen a patron at a public pool jump into the deep end with the cushion of a chaise lounge and make a save. The cushion had about 40 pounds of buoyancy (a standard life jacket has 17) and it kept both of them above the water until the guard could get there (he was texting and didn’t see anything). In New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a mother saved her son by swimming out with a cooler and putting it between her and the boy. They both kicked their way back to the sandbar that he had stepped off of and they walked out of the water.

If there is no one else around and you are not a lifeguard, but you have a lifejacket on and can grab another, you have enough flotation to give both you and a victim freeboard to breathe and stop the drowning. So long as you are a good swimmer and are in decent shape, you can go help. 

There are far too many “what ifs” to tell you how to handle every possible drowning scenario, but you should not feel completely helpless just because you are not a rescue professional. Yes — there is danger in attempting a rescue (for the trained and untrained alike) but standing on the beach or boat or pool edge during a drowning and hoping someone else gets there in time just isn’t a strategy.  



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