We’ve all seen drowning in the movies – and it’s easy to think how it might look in real life. In reality, drowning can appear quite differently.
If you see someone in the water shouting for help and waving their arms, this is called ‘aquatic distress’. This person may be very near to drowning – they need help. But someone who is actually in the process of drowning looks very different.
Drowning can be silent. It is possible for someone to drown next to other people unnoticed, simply because the people around fail to recognise the signs of drowning.
The signs of drowning
It’s important that everyone is aware of the signs of drowning:
Their head is either tilted back with mouth open, or low in the water with their mouth at water level
Look to see if they are vertical in the water and not using their legs
Their eyes are closed or, if open, they appear glassy and empty. They struggle to focus or hold eye contact
People often hyperventilate or gasp for air. If they have long hair it may be over their forehead or eyes, instead of pushed back from their face
Some people look like they are climbing an invisible ladder, trying to stay buoyant. Or they may be stressed, trying to swim in a particular direction and not making headway.
What can you do?
It is human instinct to want to help other people in distress, and this often leads people who witness drowning to enter the water themselves to assist. Unfortunately this also leads to a lot of cases of multiple drownings, which can escalate the situation and put other people at risk as well. If you see someone who is drowning, call for help and locate a rescue aid. Do not put yourself in danger.