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Updated 25 July 2012

Drowning

Children under three years are most at risk of drowning, which can take only a few minutes.

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Summary

  • Children under three years are most at risk of drowning, which can take only a few minutes.
  • First aid focuses on getting the person out of the water and giving mouth-to-mouth and CPR as necessary.
  • Anyone rescued from drowning should be observed in hospital for 24 hours.
  • Prevention measures include never leaving small children alone near water, and securing swimming pools.

Who is at risk of drowning?

On average, three children drown in South Africa per day. The majority of these were last seen in the home, were in the care of one or both parents at the time, and had been out of sight for under five minutes. Drowning often happens quickly and with little noise to alert parents or childminders.

Children under three years of age are most at risk. Most drownings involving children aged one to four years take place in the home swimming pool. With infants under one year, most drownings happen in the bath when the child is left alone for just a few minutes.

In adults, most drownings occur in males who are intoxicated. People often drown within a few metres of the seashore, boat or dock. Suspect trouble if a swimmer's strokes become erratic and jerky or stop, or if the body sinks so only the head shows above water. Spinal injuries should always be suspected in diving accidents.

First aid for drowning

  • Get the person out of the water, but don't try to rescue someone if it will endanger your own life. Rather call for help, and try to reach the person from land with a pole or rope. Tie yourself to something secure on shore if you have to swim to the person.
  • Do the ABCs: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Check for foreign bodies in the airways, such as weed, but don't waste time trying to drain swallowed water. Mouth-to-mouth breathing can be attempted in the water, but full CPR can only be done on a firm flat surface.
  • If you suspect a spinal injury and CPR is not required, don't move the person to land. Keep him lying face-up in the water until help arrives.
  • Once on shore, if the person is breathing adequately, but is still unconscious and there are no spinal injuries, place him in the recovery position. Keep him warm.
  • All near-drowning victims should be observed in hospital for 24 hours. They are at risk for 'secondary drowning', a serious condition in which the lung tissue swells after exposure to water.

Prevention of drowning

  • Always supervise small children near water, even buckets - as little as 5cm of water poses a risk. Because of the disproportionate weight of their heads, toddlers can easily topple over and find it difficult to lift their heads to breathe.
  • Never leave a child under four alone in the bath, even for a second. If you must leave the room, wrap the child in a towel and take her with you. Pull the plug when bath-time is over.
  • Ensure the whole family learns how to swim. Young children should always wear approved life vests (inflatable rings and water wings are not effective), that fit snugly.
  • Fence off your pool and preferably also use a pool net. Get a lockable cover for jacuzzis or sunken baths. Remove the ladder from above-the-ground pools after use. Don't leave toys in and around the pool as children may be tempted to retrieve them. Don't install a diving board. Never allow anyone to dive head-first into pools which are less than 2.5m deep.
  • At the beach, only swim in designated areas and with a lifeguard on duty. Don't stand with your back to the water as a sudden wave could knock you over; if you are caught in a current, swim parallel to the shore or tread water until help arrives.
  • No-one should swim alone or when intoxicated.
  • Learn CPR and make sure that your childminder knows first aid and rescue methods.

Last updated: July 2009

 
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