Did you know that drownings are the leading cause of death for children 1 to 4 years old, after birth defects? Drownings are consistently the second leading cause of preventable death up through the age of 15 (motor vehicle accidents are the top cause).
Over the years from 2004 to 2015, the CDC reports that an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) happened each year.
If you add in boating related drownings, that increases by another 332 people per year. About 1 in 5 people who die from drowning are children from age 1 to 14 years. And for every child who dies of drowning, another five go to the ER for nonfatal submersion injuries.
Of these, half will be hospitalized. These nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic brain functioning (e.g., permanent vegetative state).”
Furthermore, 74 percent of drownings for children younger than 15 occurred in residential locations. Boys die at twice the drowning rate of girls. About 350 children younger than 15 die in pools or spas annually. That means 90 percent of them died in other sources of water.
If the majority of children drownings didn’t happen in pools but in the residential areas, where do they happen?
Unattended children in bathtubs, mostly. Followed by toilets, buckets, storm drains, ditches, wells, and anything else you can think of that can hold water that you could fall into.
Babies and toddlers are top heavy and only need a few inches of water to drown. If they fall in head first, they’re not strong enough to push themselves back out.
Drownings also tend to be silent. It’s usually only in the movies that there’s flailing and screaming that anyone can hear. Most parents report some variation of, “I only looked away for a moment,” when they describe what happened when their child drowned.
Teens and adults tend to have just over half of their drownings in natural bodies of water (lakes, rivers, oceans), not residential areas.
These are all scary facts, but there are some simple things you can do to prevent drownings in your children and in other adults. Obviously, it’s possible to actually have fun in the water and minimize the risk with a few simple strategies. All you need to add is your undivided attention.
I’m suggesting you try a few of these ideas. The most important thing is to be aware and in the present moment when swimming or boating.
• If you feel you must leave your child alone while they’re in the water, take the child with you instead.
• If you have a pool, use a four-sided isolation fence with a self-locking and self-closing gate. This reduces drownings by 50 percent.
• Find age appropriate swim lessons for your child or yourself. Children benefit from swim lessons mostly after age 4, but earlier is better. Locally ISU, Fitness Inc. and the Pocatello Community Recreation Center offer swim lessons for children, families, and adults. You can also get private lessons at your own location.
• Lifeguards aren’t babysitters; always keep your eyes on your child. That means don’t get distracted by cell phones, socializing, mowing the grass, or anything else. At a large gathering, this duty could be passed around the adults in the group.
• If your child is a weak or beginning swimmer, stay within an arms-length at all times.
• Don’t underestimate the power of water; even lakes can have undertows and strong currents.
• Get training in CPR; seconds count if you are trying to revive someone who had a submersion injury.
• If a child is missing, check the water first.
• Don’t consume alcohol when operating a boat, and make sure everyone is wearing a life vest. Eighty-eight percent of the victims of boating related drownings weren’t wearing one. Boats are like cars, they get less safe if you drink and drive.
• Never swim alone.
• Don’t dive in unfamiliar areas.
• Don’t drink alcohol when swimming. Alcohol is involved in up to 70 percent of all teen and adult drownings.
Gregory Kostur, M.D. is Health West’s new pediatrician. After working in the U.S. Air Force as a pediatrician until 2008, he worked in private practice near San Antonio, Texas, until March of this year.