How to recognise drowning: It’s not like the movies

Could you tell if someone is drowning? It’s not like in the movies, yet that’s often the only reference people have for what it looks like.

How to recognise drowning: It’s not like the movies

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Last summer we witnessed both devastating losses and breathtaking rescues as people headed to the coast. It's crucial that all of us, not just trained lifesavers, are able to recognise drowning so that fewer families are affected by this quick and silent killer.

Drowning is the impairment of breathing while in the water and it occurs more often and more quickly than you might think - or notice.

What’s the difference between aquatic distress and the drowning response?

See someone yelling for help and waving their arms? That's called aquatic distress, and it indicates that they are very close to drowning.

Drowning itself is harder to spot. The drowning response is an instinctive reaction triggered by a sense of suffocation, during which people lose conscious control of how they react or behave. This struggle lasts just 20-60 seconds.

Dr Francesco Pia, a drowning prevention educator, says: 'The drowning movements of a young child can make it look as though they are doing doggy paddle, when they are actually drowning.’

It's entirely possible for someone to drown with people right next to them, because the onlookers do not know how to recognise drowning.

Learn how to spot the signs of drowning

When you know the signs, you can act. Act quickly enough and you may save someone's life. Learn how to spot the signs and - if you ever see them - immediately call for help and locate a rescue aid.

How to recognise drowning

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

Five indicators that someone is drowning

1. Head back

Their head is either tilted back with mouth open, or low in the water with their mouth at water level.

2. Upright position

Look to see if they are vertical in the water and not using their legs.

3. Panicked eyes

Their eyes are closed or, if open, they appear glassy and empty. They struggle to focus or hold eye contact.

4. Panicked face

People often hyperventilate or gasp for air. If they have long hair it may be over their forehead or eyes, instead of pushed back from their face.

5. Tell-tale movements

Some people look like they are climbing an invisible ladder, trying to stay buoyant. Or they may be stressed, trying to swim in a particular direction and not making headway.

What more can you do?

Many people would struggle to stand by while someone is in the water, even if help is on its way.

While the RNLI understands all too well the compassion and selflessness that motivates people to risk their lives to save others, some responses can escalate a situation and put others at risk too.

There are steps you can take to save a life without putting your own at risk. Read about them and always remember to respect the water.