Summer Health Series: Safety in the Water

Fri, 08/31/2018 - 1:00pm
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By Julia Solomon, Warren Alpert School of Medicine class of 2019

Block Island is renowned for its miles of stunning, sandy shorelines. And in the summer who can resist the allure of the cool waves on a hot day? But going to the beach is not without risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are close to 10 unintentional drowning deaths per day in the United States, and about 20 percent of those are children under the age of 14.

Fortunately there are simple steps that you can take to prevent drowning from occurring, especially in children, and to recognize and help to save someone who is in trouble in the water.

Preventing drowning

The first key, for children especially, is to make sure that they are always supervised. For a pre-school-age child or a child who is not able to float or swim on their own, this means being within an arm's length of an adult at all times, and staying in shallow water where they are able to stand without difficulty. It is also important for at least one and preferably more than one supervising adult to not be drinking alcohol.  When supervising children, even one or two alcoholic drinks may be too much. Waiting until after the swimming and water fun is over before drinking also helps to protect adults in and around water. Data show that 30 percent to 70 percent of adults who drown have measurable blood alcohol levels.

Water safety devices are also helpful for keeping kids safe near the water. But remember: pool rafts and foam floaties like pool noodles are not water safety devices. And even certified water safety devices like a life jacket are no substitute for swimming lessons and close supervision. In addition, its always better to seek out beaches with lifeguards. The only beach on Block Island with a lifeguard is Fred Benson Town Beach.

When swimming on a beach without lifeguards it is even more important to keep a close eye on children and weak swimmers.

Young children, especially, can drown even in very shallow water. And everyone is at increased risk of drowning if they hold their breath for an extended amount of time. It can take as little as 20 seconds to one minute for children and adults to drown. 

Recognizing drowning

The signs of drowning are not as dramatic as they are in the movies or on TV. Drowning kids and adults don’t just sink to the bottom of the water, and they don’t have the energy to wave their arms and scream for help. They tend to bob up and down, so their heads may alternate between being visible at the surface and not being visible. They may also be barely floating, with their body and most of their face underwater except their mouth. If there are arm movements, they tend to be under the water, where they are hard or impossible to see.

How to help

The best defense is a good offense, and that is true for water safety as it is for sports. Keep in mind the above pointers for prevention. Hopefully you will never encounter drowning or a near-drowning. But if you do it’s best to know how to respond. Call 911 and get the person out of the water as quickly as you can, as long as you feel it is safe to do so and that you will not be at risk of drowning as well. Check for the “ABC’s” of lifesaving: airway, breathing, and circulation. This means looking if there is anything blocking the person’s mouth, looking and listening for signs of breathing, and checking the neck for a pulse. Unless an object is immediately visible you should not try to remove anything from someone’s mouth or throat. You can look for signs of breathing by watching for the chest or stomach to rise and fall. And while you can possibly feel pulses in several different places, in an emergency it is best to check at the neck since it is the strongest and easiest to find pulse. Even if the person appears fine at first you should still seek medical attention!

Starting CPR immediately is the best response if a person is not breathing or does not have a pulse. This should be initiated while immediately calling for help. Press fast and hard in the center of the chest — you should aim for the chest to sink two inches with every compression (or 1.5 inches in a child under the age of one year). Use two hands and make sure you let the chest rise all the way back up in between compressions. You should aim for 100 to 120 compressions per minute.

Do not give rescue breaths. If others around you know how to do chest compressions you should take turns — it is exhausting to do high quality chest compressions at the correct depth and speed for more than one to two minutes at a time.

The Block Island Medical Center will be sponsoring a Child Safety and CPR class for parents this fall — so stay tuned for more.

Medical content edited by Mark Clark, MD, Medical Director, Block Island Medical Center.