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The Dangers of Shallow Water Blackouts and Dry Drowning

Posted on December 10, 2015 Safety
Harmful or deadly water incidents aren’t exclusive to inexperienced swimmers. Shallow water blackouts can have devastating consequences for professional and experienced swimmers. Furthermore, getting a victim on dry land doesn’t always eliminate the risk of drowning. Some victims may suffer from dry drowning immediately after rescue or as many as 24 hours later. Education is one of the best ways to prevent injury and death from these very real water dangers. Here’s what you need to know before swimming season or your next trip to the YMCA.

Shallow Water Blackouts

Shallow water blackouts occur when a swimmer can’t take a breath quickly enough. It often happens when swimmers hyperventilate before going under, presumably to get as much oxygen as possible into their systems. This creates low levels of carbon dioxide in the body. Carbon dioxide is the body’s natural signal to rise to the surface to get more air. When the levels are extremely low, a swimmer may not get the signal in time, triggering the symptoms of oxygen deprivation: the blackout. Shallow water blackouts can happen to experienced swimmers, who lifeguards and friends may not watch as carefully. As soon as an individual blacks out, the body’s natural response is to take a breath. Under water, this means drowning. Swimmers experiencing a shallow water blackout need immediate assistance to survive. It can happen in as little as 2-3 feet of water and can kill in a matter of minutes.

Dry Drowning

Incidents of dry drowning are extremely rare, only causing around 1-2% of all drownings, but they’re also deadly and highly preventable. This type of drowning typically affects small children who have accidentally breathed in water while swimming. An individual may breathe in water while roughhousing in the pool or getting pulled off of his or her feet when a wave hits in the ocean. The person may get out of the water and appear okay at first. Water doesn’t actually enter the lungs in these cases. Instead, it causes vocal chords to close off airways, making breathing difficult. Secondary drowning, a closely related condition, may not be immediately recognizable, either. It occurs when water does reach the lungs, creating a pulmonary edema and making breathing difficult. Symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing, lethargy, and chest pain. In many cases, the situation will resolve itself, but the occurrence can still be deadly. Have the symptoms checked out, particularly if an individual swam recently.

Preventing Shallow Water Blackouts and Dry Drowning

Safety advocacy groups stress the importance of swimming safety for a reason. While rare, these types of events do occur. They can be difficult to spot, but they are preventable. Anyone can suffer from the effects and even die by them. Prevent drowning incidents in the water and after leaving the water by:
  • Watching small children after they leave the water for signs of dry drowning
  • Using the buddy system while swimming, even as an adult, to reduce the risk of an unnoticed blackout
  • Taking a seminar or short class to learn how to breathe properly while swimming to reduce the risk of a blackout
  • Getting certified for CPR so you can help anyone in trouble if something happens at the pool or on the water
  • Avoid mixing alcohol and swimming, particularly if you plan to swim under water
Swimming offers excellent exercise, and many people look forward to getting back in the water after a long winter indoors. Understanding the full risks of swimming can help you keep yourself and your family safe. If you do experience a situation where someone could’ve been saved from a shallow water blackout or dry drowning but wasn’t because of a person’s negligence, give our Dallas office a call for a consultation today.