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How to reduce drowning risk for teens and young adults

June 27, 2018 | UCI Health
teens running into water with surfboards

Hearts went out to U.S. Olympic skier Bode Miller and his family after the drowning death of his 19-month-old daughter in a swimming pool at the home of an Orange County neighbor in early June.

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4 in in California as well as the rest of the United States. The drownings most frequently occur in swimming pools, hot tubs and spas.

But teens and young adults aren’t far behind. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have among the highest rates of drowning nationwide, and these typically occur in natural water settings, such as oceans, lakes and rivers. Nearly 80 percent of those who die are male.

Live Well asked Paul Genser, MD, a UCI Health pediatrician, to discuss ways to tackle the high drowning rates for teens and young adults.

Understand the risks of drowning

Parents and young people, themselves, need to be aware not only of the surroundings, but also of the social, emotional and physical factors at play.

  • Because the executive function of the brain — the part responsible for rational thought — is not fully developed until the mid-20s, teens and young adults are at increased risk of overestimating their skill and underestimating the dangers of water situations.
  • Impulsiveness in young people may prevent them from being aware of dangers presented by boats, fish, water conditions such as riptides, or even fishermen, so they can avoid them.
  • Activities such as surfing, paddle boarding or water skiing require additional skill beyond swimming, and situational awareness.
  • Horseplay or peer pressure in water settings contribute to the increased chance of drowning.
  • Conditions such as attention-deficit disorders, autism or seizures pile on more risk of drowning.

Drowning while using alcohol or drugs

Alcohol use is involved in up to 70 percent of deaths that occur in water recreation.

Although we haven’t seen studies yet on how marijuana use may contribute to drowning, we do know that it, alcohol and other drugs — even prescription drugs — affect a person’s ability to focus, concentrate, make rational judgments and act appropriately in emergencies.

Just as people shouldn’t drink, take drugs or use marijuana and drive, they also shouldn’t do so while engaged in water sports.

How to reduce drowning risk

  • Swim where a lifeguard is on duty.
  • Hone your swimming skills — Make sure you can float, tread water and swim for at least 25 yards (100 yards in more difficult bodies of water).
  • Never swim alone — Even excellent swimmers can make a judgment error or be unaware of situations that can lead to death. Use the buddy system and swim with at least one other competent swimmer. Stay within sight of a lifeguard at the beach or lake.
  • Know the dangers — Swimming in open water requires different skills than swimming in a pool. Learn what to do if caught in a rip current, how currents affect river swimming and the effects of cold water on swimming ability. Stay away from areas with big waves or strong undertows.
  • Know what’s beneath the surface — Don’t mess around with friends or dive into water unless someone has checked the water’s depth and looked for underwater hazards.

Further, Genser says you should never enter water deeper than your chest height without being able to stand on the bottom, unless you are wearing at least one fin, a certified life vest or are leashed to something that reliably floats that you can grab onto, such as a bodyboard, surfboard or paddleboard.

Precautions you can take

  • Wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD) when riding an inner tube, boating or kayaking.
  • Do not rely on air mattresses, inner tubes or inflatable toys as life preservers.
  • Observe warning signs for rip currents or other hazards.
  • Learn life-saving skills, including CPR, how to recognize and assist a drowning person and how to call for help by high school age.
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs while swimming — or while engaging in any form of water activity, such as boating.

“Swimming is a great form of exercise and a lot of fun,” says Genser. “But it’s important for parents to communicate with their children about the risks of drowning, to set limits for them and to supervise their activities. This can go a long way to reduce drownings.”

For more information and safety guidelines, see the American Academy of Pediatrics parent page.

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