First aid

30 January 2006

Drowning first aid

Learn what to do in a near-drowning incident.

Nearly every day, a child drowns in South Africa. Drowning often happens quickly and quietly – there is little noise to alert parents. The majority of children who drown, 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 less than five minutes.

Children under three years of age are most at risk. Most infants (under one year) who are victims, drown in the bath when the parent or caretaker leaves the child alone for a few minutes to answer the phone, or fetch something. The home swimming pool is where most drownings, involving children between 1 and 4, take place.

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

A child or adult who nearly drowns but has been rescued, is still in danger because fluid could build up in the lungs a few hours later. This may even lead to "secondary drowning", a fatal condition.

Immediate treatment

  • Get the person out of the water. Do not try to rescue someone if it will severely endanger your 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 ABC’s. Check for foreign bodies in the airways, such as weed, but do not waste time by trying to drain swallowed water. If the person needs CPR, start immediately.
  • Once on shore, place the person in the recovery position if there are no spinal injuries. Keep the person warm.
  • 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.
  • All near-drowning victims should be observed in hospital for 24 hours.

Read more: Learn CPR
Visual: CPR - Clearing the airways
Visual: CPR - Breathing technique
Visual: CPR - Location of lower breastbone
Visual: CPR - Chest compression


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