The Truth About Drowning

Many think that drowning is a violent, splashing act, but the truth is that drowning can be a quiet, almost unnoticeable event. So why does confusion surround what drowning actually looks like? The answer is that many of us learn what we believe to be drowning while watching television and movies, a dramatization that is not the same in real life.

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., named it the Instinctive Drowning Response, and it is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. This response does not look like what you would expect, as it involves little splashing, no calls for help, and no waving. Drowning is the number two cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under, further proving the fact that this is not an easily noticeable event.

There is approximately 750 children that drown each year, and of those children, 375 will drown within 25-yards of a parent or adult. This occurs because the act of drowning is something that can be deceiving to the eye and some parents will even see it happening and not notice.Our office is very involved with Toledo’s The Josh Project, making this an issue close to home. We do everything that we can to help reduce drowning incidents in our community.

The Instinctive Drowning Response:

Dr. Pia released an article titled Drowning Does Not Look Like Drowning, in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, and in it he described the Instinctive Drowning Response, including these 5 basic components:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submission occurs

Aquatic Distress may come before the Instinctive Drowning Response, and this is a time when an individual can yell and thrash in the water as they are in danger. This does not last long, but it is a time when the swimmers may bring attention to themselves and be able to reach for safety equipment such as rafts or life preservers.

Signs of Drowning:

According to, some signs of drowning include the following:

  • Head low in water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with the mouth open
  • Glassy and empty eyes, inability to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Vertical position – not using legs
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Attempting to swim in a direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over onto back
  • Climbing an invisible ladder

The important thing to take away from the above information is that drowning does not look like what many of us consider to be drowning. Always pay close attention to children in the water, and educate others to do the same.


Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, LLC