With summer’s return, a guide to avoiding drowning

Zaffer Qasim of the Perelman School of Medicine analyzed the mortality data of drowning victims in the United States to prescribe treatment measures. Among other recommendations, he encourages everyone to get training in basic life support.

Across the United States, almost 4,000 people drown each year, breaking down into 11 per day for the whole year, but the concentration is naturally much higher during the warmer months. Among children, drowning is one of the greatest causes of preventable deaths.

Young child wearing a life vest in the pool with two adults behind them.

Zaffer Qasim, an assistant professor of emergency medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, treats a few victims each summer. Treatment for drowning patients varies depending on the condition of the victim when they arrive to the emergency department—actors such as how long a patient was in the water and whether they are at all responsive matter. The best-case scenario is a series of tests, which may include lab work, X-rays and CAT scans looking for any electrolyte problems, injuries, or infections, and a period of observation at the hospital.

“If the victim has not been revived before arriving at the hospital, the care is much more intense,” Qasim says.

For those who weren’t revived before getting to the hospital, resuscitation efforts continue. Breathing and stomach tubes are placed to help with respiration and removing water or air from the gut. Tests also are needed to determine the scope of brain activity and heart and vital organ function. An intensive care unit stay is likely if resuscitation attempts in the emergency department are ultimately successful, but even then (especially if there have been 10 minutes or more of no breathing), long-term survival is not guaranteed.

The primary factor in most drownings is an inability to swim, but—typically among the 15-25 group—overconfidence in one’s swimming ability for the conditions or alcohol or drug use also play a significant factor. Medical conditions such as seizures or abnormal heart rhythms can also play a factor if a swimmer is stricken off-shore or even in the bathtub.

Since getting a person attention quickly is so vital, Qasim recommends calling 911, along with informing life guards as quickly as possible. But he emphasized that a potential rescuer shouldn’t put themselves in danger, too.

“If you don’t know how to swim or the conditions are dangerous, you’re not helping yourself or the victim out by trying to go into the water to get them yourself,” Qasim says.

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.