8 Quiet Signs of Someone Drowning

Drowning doesn't mean flailing arms and calling for help. Knowing these silent signs of drowning can mean the difference between life and death.

Have You Heard of Delayed DrowningDrowning is the second-most common cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 14 (just behind motor vehicle accidents). In a 2004 study by a national safety group, 90 percent of children who drowned did so while under the care of an adult or a teenager. In many cases, the study suggests, that person had a momentary lapse of attention.

But the fact is that often those watching don’t know what to look for—because drowning doesn’t look like drowning. To ward off a tragedy in the making, watch for these signs that someone is in trouble.

1. They can’t call for help—she has to be able to breathe before she can speak. When a person is drowning, her mouth sinks below and reappears above the surface of the water. There isn’t time for her to exhale, inhale, and call out.

2. They can’t wave for help either. A drowning person instinctively extends her arms to the sides and presses down to lift her mouth out of the water; a child may extend her arms forward. She can’t use her arms to move toward a rescuer or reach for rescue equipment.

3. They remain upright in the water, with no evidence of kicking. She can struggle for only 20 to 60 seconds before going under.

4. Their eyes are glassy, unable to focus, or closed.

5. Their face may be hard to see; hair may be over forehead or eyes.

6. Their Head is low in the water, with mouth at water level; head may be tilted back with mouth open. A child’s head may fall forward.

7. They are quiet. Children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.

8. They don’t seem in distress. Sometimes the most important indicator that someone is drowning is that she doesn’t look like she’s drowning. She may just seem to be looking up at the sky, shore, pool deck, or dock. Ask her, “Are you all right?” If she can answer at all, she probably is. If she returns a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to her.

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15 thoughts on “8 Quiet Signs of Someone Drowning

  1. I came so suddenly, I could not help it when I was drowned :(
    I could not call for help, could not see a thing explicitly.
    I just remember that there were several people standing on the pool desk staring at me (or not) and did not do anything.
    They after that told me that they thought I was standing still in the water.
    Fortunately, I reached to something floating (I dont remember).
    My friend did not have that luck, she passed away few days ago :(

  2. We’ve had two tragic deaths in the locally as a result of swimming in a quarry. On the second death bystanders reported that the victim did not appear to be in distress?!

  3. We’re only half way there folks. REMEMBER THIS! If the person(s) drowning are recovered and are conscious – but have inhaled any water, THEY WILL STILL NEED TO GET MEDICAL ATTENTION. All mammals have a thin oil (a surfactant) that keeps the tiny alveolus in the lungs open. Water that is aspirated (inhaled) tends to wash this protective film of oil out of the lungs. People have been plucked out of the water, resuscitated – only to die 2-3 hours later of suffocation because their lungs will not properly stay inflated – essentially the lungs get gummy inside and lose their ability to absorb and transfer oxygen – called a “Dry Drowning”.

  4. I live near Lake Michigan. Twice in the last 10 years I have pulled people (1 child) to safety. Each time there were people around that did not recognize the person was in distress. The child’s parents were watching from the shore and did not recognize the signs. He was a swimmer but he was caught in a push and pull of water that he could not swim out of. these signs are exactly right. So subtle, so scarey. I’ve never seen such a perfect description. I will be sharing with everyone I know that swims in Lake Michigan. Thank you


  6. I’ve been saying this for years… NOBODY has to drown EVER (short of being pinned down, knocked unconscious first, or in the ocean for a week), if only everyone would be taught how to float as a kid. All you have to do is relax and hold your breath for a few seconds, and you rise to the top. Then you can extend your arms and balance, then call for help and keep floating by taking deep breaths. It’s so simple, takes no swimming skill, even works if you’re exhausted.

    It should be a mandatory lesson set in pre-school or kindergarten, so it becomes instinct before any swimming lessons at all. So many needless deaths happen each year, and all I can do is shake my head and wonder why nobody taught them “when in doubt, tired, or scared, just float.”

    1. Yes, but if your panicking it’s difficult to relax enough to float.  I knew how to float but was way too panicked to manage it.

    2. Yes, but if your panicking it’s difficult to relax enough to float.  I knew how to float but was way too panicked to manage it.

    3. Samantha – learning to float will not make you drown-proof.  There is no such thing – given the right set of circumstances, anyone can drown.  And it doesn’t work if you are exhausted, cramped, if there is a light chop in the water, and especially in cold water.

    4. “All you have to do is relax and hold your breath for a few seconds, and you rise to the top. Then you can extend your arms and balance, then call for help and keep floating by taking deep breaths. It’s so simple, takes no swimming skill, even works if you’re exhausted.”
      I don’t think that the average person will be able to focus on going through these tasks without panicking and flailing like a dog. It’s hard for people when fear is consuming their entirety.

    5. “Just float.” Yeah I’ve been trying this for years and I still can’t float. I don’t think it’s that simple.

  7. I can attest to this, because it happened to me. It happened years ago while me and my sister were in a swimming pool. I was in the deep end and I was having trouble treading water. Fear overtook all of my senses and before I knew it, I was quietly sinking. My sister saw me and grabbed me from the water. I told her that she just saved my life. Even though it happened to me, I still can’t believe the way it happened. 

    1. it happened to me too when i was 4 or 5 years old, i remember it very well, i was not able to come out of the water, it was like having someone pulling me down! and even though there were a lot of people around me (i was very close to the shore), nobody noticed me! at one point a young man saw me under water and pulled me out, i remember being still conscious but dizzy and i cried a lot ;(

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