Myths about drowning

Summer weather, and everyone takes to the water to cool down. But beware! There’s a danger that you might not know about…

That danger is click-bait articles that give alarming misinformation about drowning and put people off teaching their children to swim. Opening with sentences like the one with which I began this post, they are designed to attract readers, often to the cost of quality and fact.

You may have read these articles. There’s one doing the rounds at the moment (from a notorious ‘fake news’ site) about a four-year-old who died “1 week after swimming”, and claims: “The boy’s lungs were filled with water and he had fallen victim to so-called dry drowning.” This is alarming: we take our children swimming, and most people don’t know the facts about drowning, dry, secondary or otherwise.

Drowning is a very real and very serious danger, that much is true. In the UK, around 60 children drown each summer, and it’s the second leading cause of death and injury in children, those aged one to four-years-old being the most vulnerable. The best defence against drowning is vigilance, but accidents can happen with even the most attentive parents. That is why knowledge and learning swimming and safety skills from as young as possible is so important.

The type of drowning of which most of us are aware is where, having been submerged for an extended period of time, the victim blacks out, reflexively tries to take a breath and inhales water. In some rare cases, the epiglottis which covers the wind pipe, doesn’t open, and the victim asphyxiates under water. This is sometimes called dry drowning (though not by medics) because the person has drowned under water without actually inhaling any.

If the victim was rescued during a drowning accident, they’d need to be monitored for 72 hours afterwards because there is a small chance they had inhaled water, and a small amount of fluid in the lungs can cause a pneumonia-like infection. But this only happens after a near-drowning accident, or where someone has panicked under the water. The key phrase here is ‘near-drowning accident’.

We all have a set of reflexes that protect our lungs. When water hits the back of our throats, the epiglottis closes, sealing shut the windpipe. Water in our throat, and the tube that connects the throat to the windpipe (the larynx), can trigger a cough reflex, where air is forced out of our lungs to clear away the water. That can also trigger the gag reflex and make us throw up, or, more often, the swallow reflex so we simply swallow the water into our stomachs.

In my eight years teaching swimming, I have seen so many children go under water and come up coughing and spluttering because these brilliant reflexes are doing their job. I try to stop myself using the phrase “the water went down the wrong way” because it’s not true; it can only go one of two ways – into their stomach or back out of the mouth or nose.

To enter the danger zone, they’d need to be under water for an extended period of time (how long depends on the individual and the situation). And they’d also need to either panic or pass out – in other words, the situation would have to be out of control. The wonderful thing about swimming lessons is that children learn water confidence, safety skills and swimming skills in a carefully controlled environment.

Babies have no sense of fear with water; having grown in it for nine months, they have an innate affinity with it. The reflexes I talked about earlier are even stronger in babies. By introducing young babies to water, including gentle, controlled submersions, those innate reflexes can become learned behaviour. From a water safety point of view, not just teaching safety skills like turning and holding on to the side, but guarding against panic by making sure they’re always confident and comfortable in water.

I taught a boy called Sam who fell into a pool on holiday when he was 15 months old. His mum was right next to him, but before she got to him, he had turned round and held on to the side. Another baby, George, slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, but he calmly righted himself and held on to the side, and he was only eight months old.

What worries me about the articles that spread worry among parents is that they might discourage people from teaching their children to swim. By the time they leave primary school, children should be able to swim 25 metres because if they can swim this distance, chances are they’re strong enough swimmers to get themselves out of trouble.

The Amateur Swimmers Association (ASA) says that one in three children will leave primary school unable to swim. That’s 200,000 children leaving UK schools this summer who would be in big trouble if they fell into deep water. That’s quite a scary statistic, and a much more realistic contribution towards drowning accidents than misinformed notions of secondary drowning.

So how can you protect your children? Be vigilant when it comes to children and water. Remember that it doesn’t take much time or much water for things to get serious. And teach your children to swim. Start in babyhood if you can, choose a swim school if you can, or just take them yourself and teach them confidence and water safety.

Find lessons near you on this website

Find out about baby swimming.

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