Drowning Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 02, 2024
4 min read

What does a drowning person look like? They're likely to be:

  • Silent: There’s no spare breath to call for help.
  • Bobbing up and down: Their mouth could dip below the water’s surface, pop up just enough to breathe, and sink back down.
  • Stiff-armed: Instead of waving for help, someone who's drowning may have their arms out to the side. Their hands may be pressed down on the water to keep afloat. They most likely can't reach out to grab a life preserver.
  • Still: Their body could be straight up and down, almost like they're standing in the water. You won't see kicking or flailing.

A drowning person can only stay like this for 20-60 seconds. If you don’t get to them soon enough, they'll start to sink. You may miss the chance to help if you don’t know what’s going on.

Knowing how to swim is important. But even good swimmers can drown, and it can happen fast. Never take your eye off a child in the water. You have to watch them all the time. And not just in large bodies of water. Young children can drown in hot tubs, bathtubs, decorative ponds, buckets, and even toilets.

  • Someone is drowning.
  • A child is having problems breathing or has stopped breathing as a result of being underwater. (Remember, children can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.)
  • A child has had a near-drowning episode.

If an adult is in trouble, follow these steps. Keep in mind that these guidelines aren't meant to replace CPR training. Classes are always offered through the American Red Cross, local hospitals, and other groups.

1. Get help.

  • Notify a lifeguard, if one is close. If not, ask someone to call 911.
  • If you're alone, follow the steps below.

2. Move the person.

  • Quickly and safely take the person out of the water. 

3. Check to see if they're conscious.

  • Shout to get a response. Tap their shoulder. Shout again.

4. If they don't respond, place them on their back on a firm surface.

5. Start CPR.

CPR guidelines have changed in recent years. The letters C-A-B (compressions, airway, breathing) can help you remember what to do.

Begin chest compressions:

  • Kneel next to the person's neck and shoulders.
  • Place the heel of one hand on the center of their chest at the nipple line. Place your other hand on top of it. Keep your arms straight.
  • Press down hard, at least 2 inches. Use your entire body weight.
  • Do chest compressions at the rate of 100-120 per minute. (Try to match the beat of the Bee Gees song "Staying Alive.") Let their chest spring back fully between each push.
  • Keep going until the person begins to move or help arrives. Or, if you're trained in CPR, you can open their airway and begin rescue (mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-nose) breathing after 30 compressions.

Open their airway:

  • Put one palm on the person's forehead and tilt their head back.
  • Use your other hand to gently lift their chin.

Breathe for them:

  • Pinch their nose closed.
  • Cover their mouth with your own. Make a tight seal.
  • Breathe into their mouth for 1 second. Watch to see if their chest rises.
  • If their chest rises, give a second breath. If it doesn't, tilt their head back and lift their chin again. Then, repeat your breath. Take care not to breathe with too much force.
  • Give 30 more chest compressions, followed by 2 more rescue breaths. Follow this pattern until the person begins to move or help arrives.

For a child or baby: 

Carefully place them on their back on a firm surface. 

Begin chest compressions:

  • For a small child, you may only need to use one hand on the center of their chest at the nipple line. For a baby, place both thumbs, side by side, in the center of their chest. Encircle your other fingers toward their back for support.
  • Keep your arms straight.
  • Press down hard and fast – at least 2 inches for a child, and only 1 and 1/2 inches for a baby. 
  • Keep a fairly quick rhythm, at the rate of 100-120 per minute (the same as for adults).
  • Start rescue breathing after 30 chest compressions.

Open their airway:

  • Tilt their head back and gently lift their chin. For a baby, be careful not to tilt the head back too far.
  • With an older child, pinch their nose closed and put your mouth over their mouth, forming a tight seal. With a baby, place your mouth over both their nose and mouth.
  • Blow for 1 second. Take care not to breathe with too much force. With a baby, you should deliver gentle puffs of air, not deep breaths. 
  • If their chest rises, give a second breath. 
  • If their chest doesn't rise, tilt their head back and lift their chin again. Then, repeat the second rescue breath.
  • As with an adult, give 2 rescue breaths for every 30 chest compressions.
  • Keep going until help arrives or the child or baby begins to move.

If two people are able to do CPR, give one to two rescue breaths after 15 chest compressions. Then trade off.

If you don't feel comfortable giving rescue breaths, give chest compressions until help arrives on the scene. If you aren't trained in CPR, you may worry that you'll do it wrong. But any type of help is better than no help.