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Beware the real signs of drowning

When most people hear the word "drowning," they likely envision the television trope of someone furiously splashing around, screaming for help and thrashing in the water. A heroic lifeguard may race to the scene, throwing a buoy to the struggling swimmer, then hauling him or her back to the shore. Aid is rendered, the near-drowning victim vomits up massive amounts of swallowed water, and everything turns out fine in time for a commercial break.

In reality, however, drowning very rarely looks like this stereotype. Drowning is often deceptively quiet and unassuming. A struggling swimmer is definitely undergoing what is known as "aquatic distress," but that person can most often still aid in his or her rescue and can call out or wave for help. Someone actively drowning most likely can't do either of those things.

This is because of something known as the "instinctive drowning response," a series of involuntary behaviors that precede drowning. These include:

  • Glassy-eyed appearance
  • Open mouth just at the level of the water, bobbing up and down beneath the surface
  • Inability to call or wave for help, instead only being able to stare ahead or around
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Little movement or noise
  • Involuntary arm movements, typically with them out to the side trying to add buoyancy
  • An upright posture in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick or attempt to tread water
  • Trying to roll over in the water without success

With summer's arrival, recognizing these tell-tale signs could literally mean the difference between life and death. When you are out and about on Texas waterways, in pools and hot tubs, or visiting one of our state's numerous and beautiful swimming holes, knowing that the stereotypical signs are exceedingly rare might be enough to determine when someone is actually drowning.

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