Drowning: First Aid Steps That Can Save A Life

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With the hot December holiday season on our doorstep, a lot of families gravitate toward beaches, rivers, dams, and pools to unwind, celebrate, and just have fun in the sun, not realising the potential dangers that await them.

Dangers of Drowning

There are numerous reasons why people drown during the festive season:

  •  Child drowning can occur due to the family or childminder not keeping watch properly or asking a younger, inexperienced sibling to watch the child;
  •  People who cannot swim go into bodies of water without the knowledge of drowning safety and know-how of the environment such as currents and rip tides;
  •  Unfortunately, people who are under the influence of intoxicating substances, make bad decisions and enter the water.

Why Do So Many Children Drown Each Year?

About 1 500 people drown in South African waters every year, 500 of which are children under the age of 10. A lot of children are from inland rural areas and are not taught swimming as an extra-curricular activity at school, nor are there readily available pools where children (and adults) can be taught to swim. So, when families do head to the ocean, rivers, dams and pools for the holidays, they are not equipped with the knowledge and know-how on how to swim or how to be safe around bodies of water.

Parents often leave older siblings to look after the younger ones while they make lunch or socialise with other adults during these festive periods. These older siblings often don’t possess the necessary skills to swim or first aid for a drowning child, so they are ill-equipped to deal with this type of emergency.

First Aid Procedure For Drowning

Different types of drowning

It is important to note that there are various types of drownings. These can happen in fresh-water lakes, dams or rivers or in the sea or a lagoon. They can be categorised as follows:

Dry drowning:  When the person drowning inhales water which causes the vocal cords to spasm and close, trapping air in the lungs hence lungs being “dry”. As the lungs are still full of air, these patients will usually float.

Wet drowning:  When the aforementioned spasm now relaxes, water enters the lungs. These patients will often sink to the bottom of the body of water.

Secondary drowning:  When the person was rescued in time, but complications arose due to excessive water entering the lungs. With saltwater drownings, the salt content draws blood into the lungs causing pulmonary oedema (fluid on the lungs), and with fresh water, any bacteria in the water could result in an infection in the lungs.


First Aid Treatment For Drowning:

Drowning first aid treatment for both child and adult drowning are exactly the same.  This can be achieved by remembering the following acronym: “D, R, A, B, C, D.”

  • Danger:  Ensure you are safe, and do not enter the water if it is not safe to do so.
    • Determine whether the patient could have sustained a spinal injury from diving or jumping into a pool or riverbed. If a spinal injury is suspected, then spinal immobilise the patient where possible. (Keep the head, neck and spine in as straight line as possible)
    • Remove the patient from the water.
  • Response: Tap the person on the shoulders and see if they respond to you.
    • Roll the patient into the recovery position to drain out any water in the airway.
  • Airway: Open the airway by tilting the head back and opening the mouth.
  • Breathing:  Check to see if there is any chest movement.
  • Circulation:  Check for a pulse in the neck, if you do not feel a pulse immediately start with CPR; 30 compressions hard and fast in the middle of the chest. Call for help by phoning 10177/112.
    • Whenever fluid is noticed in the back of the throat roll the patient into the recovery position to drain
  •  Defibrillate:  If an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) is available, use it to shock the patient. (Ensure that the person’s body is completely out of the water and fairly dry before administering the latter)

Carry on with CPR until the patient shows signs of life or medical assistance arrives.

Importance of First Aid For The Holiday Season

First aid is a lifesaving skill that enables you to help anybody that is sick, injured or unconscious, in any situation. You might be the first or only person on the scene that can make a difference.

As a trained first aider you are trained in CPR, and other essential emergency lifesaving skills. It takes only minutes for irreversible brain damage to occur without any CPR or first aid treatment, and CPR enables you to be a child/adult’s life-line; their heartbeat and lungs; this makes a huge difference for survival.

We can all make a difference to reduce drowning in children and adults by learning first aid and drowning safety tips:

1.     Learn how to swim and your limits.

2.     Always swim with a friend or under supervision.

3.     Only swim in safe areas with lifeguards.

4.     Always jump feet first into water.

5.     Avoid any intoxicating substances if you are going to go swim.

Be safe, be swim-smart and stay alive this festive season

First Aid Kit Checklist

Ensure that you always have a correctly stocked First Aid Box in your workplace as per the Regulation 7.

Download our free checklist to keep on hand so that your are to respond to emergencies effectively.