Instinctive Drowning Response

Did you know that humans have an Instinctive Drowning Response? According to Frank Pia, Ph.D., when people perceive water suffocation, there is an innate physiological response. Although television depicts victims flailing their arms and yelling for help, actual drowning looks very different. Would you recognize this response?

Instinctive Response. Victims are physiologically unable to call for help because speech is a secondary function occurring when breathing is complete. A victim’s mouth surfaces for seconds leaving insufficient time to exhale, inhale, and call for help. Drowning victims instinctively extend their arms laterally, pressing down on the water in an attempt to lift their mouths above the water. They cannot wave, reach for life-saving devices, or move toward rescuers. Their bodies remain upright, with no leg kicks.

Silent Suffocation. Of the approximately 735 children who drown each year, half of them die within 25 yards of an adult. More startling, about 10% of those drownings occur while an adult watches, having no idea what they are witnessing. This silent killer is the leading cause of accidental death in children under 6 and the second leading cause of accidental death in children under 14.

Drowning Later. In delayed drowning, the victim experiences an incident that causes water to enter the lungs. Insufficient oxygenation of the blood occurs, and up to 24-hours later, the victim drowns. Dry drowning accounts for 10%-15% of water deaths. Here, oxygen to the lungs is blocked briefly, typically from laryngeal cords contraction, yet the heart continues pumping blood to the lungs. Over time, a victim drowns in his own body fluids or dies from hypoxia. Coughing, sputtering, trouble breathing, exhaustion, confusion, or changes in behavior during the 24-hour period after swimming are signs of possible dry drowning.

Water Rescue. Arizona’s weather coupled with more than 620,000 pools makes water safety of particular concern. While watching children around water is critical, it is also essential to:

  • Take note of water incidents and monitor for at least 24-hours
  • Know how to identify the Instinctive Drowning Response
  • Learn CPR and other life saving techniques
  • Seek medical help quickly- seconds matter

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