The Instinctive Drowning Response, so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water and it does not look like most people expect it to.
When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic drowning can be, consider this: It is the #2 cause of accidental death in children age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents).
Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.
Drowning does not look like drowning. Dr. Pia, in an article he wrote for the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:
- Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
- The mouths of drowning people alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water; they are not above the surface of the water long enough for the victims to exhale, inhale and call out for help. When the mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly before sinking below the surface of the water
- Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
- Throughout the instinctive drowning response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
- From beginning to end of the instinctive drowning response, the bodies of drowning people remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.
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