Staying safe around water: first aid for drowning
Last updated 6 July 2023
As summer heats up, more and more of us are cooling down in beautiful water spots across the country. It's important to understand the dangers around open water swimming and be familiar with first aid if someone is drowning.
While most open water swimming dips are safe, an average of 400 people still drown in British waters every year, with men and children most likely to be affected.* Hypothermia and other water dangers are also a risk when swimming or paddling.
Here are some top tips about staying safe near open water, plus six things to know about drowning.
Avoiding danger near open water
Last updated 5 July 2022
When swimming outdoors, cold water and strong currents can be dangerous, even for good swimmers. Always respect the water and do not swim anywhere there are signs saying it's not safe to do so.
Water is much colder than air, so even on a warm day the water may be very cold. Hypothermia is a real risk and usually develops after someone has left the water. Make sure you dry off thoroughly, and don't swim if it feels too cold.
Don't go too far out. Stay close to the shore of edge, rather than swimming in the middle of open water, so you can get back safely if you need to.
Supervise children and young people at all times near the water. Only swim or paddle in places where there are lifeguards close by.
If you're ever open water swimming, it's important to take a friend with you in case anything happens.
Helping someone in difficulty
If someone does get into difficulty while open water swimming, safely bring them to dry land. If possible, call for help for someone trained or try to pull the person in from where you're standing. Do not risk your own life if it's too dangerous.
Check to see if the person is breathing, and follow the steps for unresponsive and breathing if they are.
If a person rescued from drowning isn't breathing, follow the steps for unresponsive and not breathing in an adult and unresponsive and not breathing in a child. Give five initial rescue breaths, and then continue with cycles of 30 compressions and two rescue breaths.
Read our drowning first aid facts below for more details:
- Read more about water safety
- Spot the signs of hypothermia
- More advice on staying safe in hot weather and heatwaves
Six things to know about drowning
1. Despite being an island nation, two out of three drownings occur inland
Places include quarries, canals, lakes, and reservoirs, where there is not usually a lifeguard or people around to help. Even if it's a hot day and you want to cool off, don't enter the water unless it's a designated swimming area.
2. Almost half of the people who drown never meant to enter the water
Many of these people were taking part in everyday activities, such as walking. They may have fallen into the water or attempted to rescue someone else in need of help. The danger of entering a body of water should always be considered before reacting to any emergency.
3. Men are four times more likely to drown than women and younger men are especially at risk
Men are twice as likely to drown as women and there is a distinct peak in the number of men drowning in the 20-29 age group.
4. Alcohol plays a role in a high percentage of drownings
Alcohol was a factor in about one in three drownings. It can trigger unsafe behaviour like going swimming when you're unable to recognise water danger. It's important to always respect the water and never go swimming while drinking alcohol.
5. Drowning doesn't look like it does in films
Despite the splashing arms and screaming we've become accustomed to seeing on the big screen, that's not what drowning looks like. Drowning is quiet and quick. You need to be very vigilant to spot the signs that someone who is drowning.
A drowning person will alternately dip below the water and briefly back up again. They will be struggling so hard just to exhale and inhale again.
We can all contribute to drowning prevention by knowing how to tell when someone is drowning and what to do should we ever pull someone from the water. It may never happen but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
More first aid for drowning
Take care to avoid putting yourself in danger if rescuing someone from water. If you pull someone from the water and they are unresponsive, follow these steps:
1. Check for breathing. Tilt their head back and look, listen and feel for breaths. If they are not breathing, move on to the following steps
2. Tell someone to call 999 for emergency help – if an AED is available, ask someone to get it but don’t delay starting CPR
3. Give five rescue breaths: tilt their head back, sealing your mouth over their mouth. Pinch their nose and blow into their mouth. Repeat this five times
4. Give 30 chest compressions. Push firmly in the middle of their chest and then release. Repeat this 30 times
5. Give two rescue breaths then continue with cycles of 30 chest compressions and two rescue breaths until help arrives or the casualty shows signs of becoming responsive
6. If the casualty starts to breathe normally, keep them still and treat for hypothermia by keeping them warm and dry if possible