Stay safe in (and on) the water

Celia Smoak Spell

Assistant Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Headed to the beach or a day out on the lake? Most likely you’ll protect yourself from the sun with sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. Maybe you also take along insect repellent. But how good is your water safety knowledge? You can’t tuck it in a beach bag or backpack, but it’s essential to a good day on the water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2005 and 2014 nearly 10 people died each day from unintentional (non-boating related) drownings, and over 300 per year from boating related incidents. And water injuries can do great damage even when they are not fatal. Over half of drowning victims require hospital care beyond the emergency room, and some of them experience brain damage that requires long-term care.

Enjoy the water safely

Drowning is the most common cause of unintentional death in children ages 1 to 4, and the second most common for ages 5 to 9, according to the CDC. But Dr. Josh Kosowsky, attending physician in emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says these statistics can be avoided with proper supervision. He suggests taking your children to swim only at beaches or pools with lifeguards. Even adults should never swim alone. Think back to those times you had “buddy checks” at camp. “It may have seemed kind of hokey at the time,” he said. “But it works.”

Would you recognize when a person is drowning? Maybe not. Most of us picture drowning as a loud activity with yelling and struggling from the victim, but in reality drowning is quiet, and goes easily unnoticed in a crowded lake or pool. Once someone starts taking on water, their voice box (larynx) begins to spasm, which is part of the reason there isn’t much screaming. The larynx closes to keep water from flowing into the airway, but it also means the lungs can’t take in air. When water does get into the smaller airways they tend to constrict, which is referred to as a bronchospasm. Survivors of a near drowning episode may develop wheezing as a result.

Ideally, all backyard pools should have a secure fence. Storing pool toys away from the pool can deter children from being drawn to the water. And lastly, make sure your children are strong swimmers. Start them early with swim lessons to help them stay safe in the water.

Water safety applies to adults too. Kosowsky points out that the danger isn’t just with operating the vehicle safely. Anyone on a boat who is “under the influence” is at risk for drowning. And of course, be sure there are plenty of life jackets around; federal law requires a life jacket for everyone on board.

Head and neck injuries are always serious and can easily happen around the water. Make sure you only dive into an area where you know the depth. Dr. Kosowsky points out that body surfing in the ocean is an underrated risk because the waves can slam people head-first into the beach, causing serious neck and spinal injuries.

Your water safety checklist

If being on or in the water is part of your summer plans, enjoy! But do include safety as part of your outing. Remember:

✓ Supervise children in the water and avoid beaches, pools, and swimming holes that do not have lifeguards.

✓ Follow beach and pool safety rules, including types of flotation devices and toys allowed, and designated swimming areas.

✓ Never swim alone.

✓ Avoid alcohol anytime you’re around water, including while boating.

✓ Pay attention to weather and water conditions, including threat of thunderstorms and rip currents.

✓ Take appropriate health condition-related precautions (for example, for people with seizure disorders or heart or lung disease).

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter

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