How to Help a Drowning Victim

A person can drown when water or any fluid stops air from entering into the mouth and nose. Drowning commonly occurs in deep water. It is also possible to drown in shallow water if the person is lying down and is unable to move. Unconscious people can drown in their own vomit if their airway is not managed correctly.

Small children are most at risk of drowning because they are unable to judge the depth of water, are not able to swim, or are not strong enough to get out of dangerous water. It is important to watch small children closely when they are near water, no matter how deep.

A yellow drowning warning sign

Good swimmers can drown in water from exhaustion, or by misjudging the depth of water when diving.

Recognizing a Drowning Emergency

A person who is drowning cannot usually shout for help. Signs that a person may be drowning are:

  • being in the water fully clothed
  • uneven swimming motions, indicating a swimmer is tired
  • body sinks, and only the head shows above water

Signs a person has drowned

  • bloated stomach (due to the ingestion of water)
  • blue skin, especially around the lips (cyanosis)
  • cold and pale skin
  • cough pink and bubbly sputum (caused by fluid in the lungs)
  • confusion and/or irritability
  • unconsciousness/coma
  • shallow breathing or gasping for air
  • a person in cardiac arrest, near or in water

How to Help a Drowning Victim

  • Check the scene for safety, including electrical hazards.
  • Check the person’s condition and level of consciousness.
  • Send for help such as a lifeguard or person trained in water rescue.
  • Look for a long pole, branch or rope to extend to person.
  • If possible find a life jacket, lifebelt, or something that floats, to throw to person.
  • Do NOT get into the water unless you are sure it is safe.
  • If it is safe and you are able to get to the person, lift the person’s head above the water and carry the person to safety.
  • If the person is unconscious, give basic life support: – if the person is NOT breathing, give CPR – when breathing starts, place the person in the recovery position to prevent drowning from vomiting
  • Cover the person with a blanket or towel to keep warm and prevent the development of hypothermia

If the person has recovered from a drowning accident, refer to a hospital for assessment by a medical professional. There is always a risk of ‘secondary’ drowning in these patients.

John Furst

JOHN FURST is an experienced emergency medical technician and qualified first aid & CPR instructor. John is passionate about first aid and believes everyone should have the skills and confidence to take action in an emergency situation.

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