Kid playing in the ocean, observing water safety rules

First Aid for Drowning:Emergency Conditions

Near-drowning is when a person is in danger of drowning. Each year, almost 8,000 people die from drowning. Seventy percent of all near-drowning victims recover; 25% die, and 5% have brain damage.

A toddler can drown in as little as 2 inches of water in a bathtub, sink, etc. Toilet bowls are unsafe, too, if a small child falls into one head-first.

Signs & Symptoms

  • A person is in the water with signs of distress. He or she can’t stay above water, swims unevenly, signals for help, etc.
  • Blue lips or ears. The skin is cold and pale.
  • Bloated abdomen. Vomiting. Choking.
  • Lethargy.
  • The person does not respond or can’t breathe.


  • Not being able to swim. Being in water too deep and too rough for one’s ability to swim.
  • Water sport and other accidents. Not following water safety rules. Not wearing a life preserver, etc. Unsupervised swimming.
  • Falling through ice while fishing, skating, etc.
  • Injury or problems that occur while swimming, boating, etc. Examples are leg or stomach cramps, fatigue, and alcohol or drug use. A heart attack, stroke, seizure, and a marine animal bite or sting may have occurred.


Immediate medical care is needed for near-drowning.

First Aid for Near-Drowning

  • Shout for help! Send someone to call 9-1-1!
  • If it is safe and possible, try to reach the person. Use a long pole, rope, life preserver, etc. Then pull him or her to safety.
  • Did the person fall through ice? Try a human chain rescue to safely reach the person, but stay as far away from cracked ice as you can.
  • If you must swim to the person, be sure you are strong and capable enough. Take a flotation device with you. Approach the person from behind in a calm manner. Grab a piece of the person’s clothing. Or, cup one hand under the person’s chin.
  • When getting the person out of the water, support the head and neck. (Suspect a neck injury, especially with diving or water sports.)
  • Check for a response. (See Step 2 in First Aid Precautions.) Give Rescue Breaths and CPR, as needed. If you suspect a spinal injury, use jaw thrust instead of chin-lift for rescue breaths.
  • Once out of the water, keep checking the person for a response. Give first aid, as needed.
  • Put the person in the Recovery Position. Immobilize the person as much as possible. If the person is vomiting, clear his or her mouth of it.
  • Remove cold, wet clothes. Cover the person with a blanket, etc.


For Adults

  • Learn to swim. Never swim alone at the beach or in a swimming pool. A lifeguard or other adult swimmer should be nearby in case you suffer a leg cramp or other problem.
  • Wear a personal floatation device when you are on a boat, when you fish, etc.
  • Check the depth of the water before diving in. It should be at least 9 feet deep. Never dive into an above-ground pool.
  • Do not use a hot tub or jacuzzi if you’ve had any alcoholic drinks. You could fall asleep, slip under the surface, and drown.
  • Take CPR and water safety courses.

For Children

  • Never leave an infant or child alone in any type of bathtub. Supervise young children in the bathroom.
  • Never leave a child alone near water, swimming pools, etc. Lock gates to keep children from getting near swimming pools.
  • Have a phone near outdoor pools, etc.
  • Teach children to swim. Tell them not to swim alone and not to swim too far from shore without a lifeguard or other adult swimmer.
  • Put a personal floatation device on each child when near the water or on a boat.
  • Tell children to check the depth of water before diving in. It should be at least 9 feet deep.
  • Do not allow children to go on untested ice.
  • Take CPR and water safety courses.
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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021