Drowning Myths: What to Know Before You Dive In

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 20, 2016
From the WebMD Archives
crowded beach

June 20, 2016 -- More than 10 people a day die from drowning in the U.S. As more of us spend time around pools, lakes, and oceans this summer, experts say the numbers could be minimized with a better understanding of how drowning happens, who is most at risk, and why.

WebMD asked four experts to debunk the most common myths they hear about this danger.

Myth: Good swimmers don't drown.

Not true at all, says James Orlowski, MD, a long-time drowning researcher and a doctor at Florida Hospital Tampa.

Drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs, overestimating your swimming ability, and rip currents -- which can pull you underwater -- are all dangerous, even for adults who can swim well, he says.

Alcohol plays a role in about 70% of drowning deaths involving teens and adults, the CDC says. Drinking affects your balance, judgment, and coordination, and those effects are amplified by being in the sun and high outdoor temperatures.

"Even older, more experienced swimmers should swim with a partner," says Kate Carr, CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide.

Myth: Dry or secondary drowning are not real.

It’s true that people can sometimes drown after they get out of the water, although experts consider the terms “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” obsolete.

Dry drowning refers to taking in small amounts of water while struggling and then having breathing issues once out of the water. Secondary drowning refers to breathing troubles after a struggle in the water, due to fluid building up in the lungs.

Both problems are rare. They’re thought to make up about 1% to 2% of all drowning incidents.

Still, it’s important to be aware that breathing problems can develop hours after a struggle in the water -- you should get medical help if they do.

Myth: People who are drowning scream and flail about.

Not always, Carr says. "Drowning is often referred to as a silent killer," she says. You may not even realize you're in trouble before going under water, she says. And that's often especially true with children, she says.

''Children who are drowning can't call for help -- every bit of their effort is concentrated on staying above water," Orlowski says. "They may not even struggle -- they simply slip under water and drown.''

Adults who are poor swimmers or who can't swim may behave the same way, he says. Those who can swim well will usually flail -- they may slap the water with their arms -- and are more likely to cry out for help.

"Adults also have co-existing diseases that can play a role," he says. For instance, they might have a heart attack or their poor blood circulation could cause cramps. Adults with heart problems or seizures “are the ones that silently slip underwater and drown.” When a swimmer is hit with cramps or pulled under by a rip current, it depends -- they may flail or slip under silently.

Myth: Electric shocks are often a cause of drowning.

It’s not frequent, but it does happen.

Electric-shock drowning is a danger that isn't well known, says David Rifkin, a founder of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association. It recently drew attention after the death of an Alabama teenager, a story that went viral.

It happens when someone drowns as a result of an electric shock. An electric current -- typically a low-level AC current such as those from nearby boats or docks -- shocks swimmers in water, paralyzing them so they can’t move or help themselves.

Rifkin knows of no organization that gathers numbers on such deaths, but he says his association has received reports of more than 60 over the past decade. Most happened in marinas or docks, he says. Nearly all marinas have electrical service, along with many private docks. Electricity can also enter the water from boats connected to the marina or dock power supply.

The Alabama teenager’s death happened after she dove into a lake. A ladder in the water carried an electric charge from a faulty light switch.

Such deaths are more likely to happen in fresh water, which conducts electricity differently than salt water, Rifkin says. In fresh water, the body is a better path for the electrical current than it is in salt water.

Among the safety steps to take: Boat owners should have their vessels inspected, and install ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in marinas. Also, don't swim around docks that have AC electrical power, Rifkin says: "Stay 150 feet away from any dock that has electricity.”

Myth: Children drown more often than adults.

"Children do have a higher likelihood of drowning [than adults] but when you look at the actual numbers, more adults drown," says Linda Quan, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle. That's partly due to simple population numbers -- there are more adults than children in the U.S.

About 1 in 5 of the 3,800 people who die each year from drownings in the U.S. are children 14 and younger, the CDC says.

"For children under age 5, drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related death," behind vehicle accidents, Quan says.

Myth: Drowning is always fatal.

Most people equate drowning with death, but medical experts see it otherwise. The official World Health Organization definition of it is breathing difficulties caused by being underwater.

After that happens, some people die, but others don't, the WHO says.

Statistics on non-fatal drownings are scarce, but experts estimate that at least four times as many people suffer non-fatal drownings as the number who die in a drowning.

"In the old definition, drowning meant death," says Timothy F. Mott, MD, specialty leader to the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy. He recently published a report on drowning. "In the new definition, drowning is a spectrum that runs from what used to be called near-drowning to death."

Non-fatal drowning injuries can lead to severe brain damage and long-term effects, including memory problems and learning disabilities, the CDC says.

Brain damage can set in quickly, whether the drowning ends up being fatal or not. "After 7 minutes without oxygen, irreversible damage to the brain sets in, and after 15 minutes death or irreversible significant brain damage ensues," Orlowski says.

The lack of oxygen is the most damaging aspect of drowning, he says. "The brain is the most sensitive organ to lack of oxygen.”

Myth: "Floaties'' -- those blow-up devices that wrap around a child's arms -- can protect young children who don't swim well.

No. "They are very dangerous," Orlowski says, 'because they give the impression that a child who can't swim is safe in the water. It gives a false sense of security."

It’s not that parents shouldn’t use them, he says, but “don’t take them for granted." A child with floaties on, like all children, needs constant supervision, he says.

Children can also wear life jackets. Parents who decide to fit their child with one should be sure it's an approved life-saving device, Mott says. Look for the U.S. Coast Guard approval stamp, he says.

Many experts recommend that adults choose a ''water watcher" when children are swimming. The adult serving a shift as a water watcher agrees to keep eyes on the water (not on a cell phone or computer) and not to leave the area until a replacement is found. Children may be at higher risk of drowning with large groups of people around when it's unclear who's responsible for watching them.

Myth: Women drown more often than men.

Nearly 80% of drowning deaths are male, the CDC says.

"When we look at males' behavior, they tend to be more risk-taking and tend to overestimate their ability and tend to be drinking alcohol more," Quan says.

Show Sources


CDC: "Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts."

Linda Quan, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, and member, scientific advisory council, American Red Cross.

Kate Carr, CEO, Safe Kids Worldwide.

James Orlowski, MD, physician, Florida Hospital Tampa.

Timothy F. Mott, MD, specialty leader to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy; family physician, Naval Hospital Pensacola.

David Rifkin, founder, Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

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