Staying safe around water: first aid for drowning


Last updated 24 April 2024

During a heatwave or periods of hot weather people will often cool themselves 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

1. Be vigilant

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.

2. Cold temperatures can be dangerous.

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.

3. Stay close to the edge

Don't go too far out and stay within your depth. 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.

4. Supervise swimmers

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, never go alone. It's important to take a friend with you in case anything happens.

Six things you should 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.

First aid advice for drowning

If someone does get into difficulty while open water swimming, follow these steps:

Step 1. Do not put yourself at risk to save the person from drowning, or you risk drowning yourself.

Step 2. Once the person has been safely rescued from the water or liquid, check if they are breathing.

Tilt their head back - is their chest moving? Can you hear, see or feel them breathing? If the answer is no, they are not breathing.

Step 3. Tell someone to call 999.

If you are on your own, call 999 after you’ve spent one minute giving them rescue breaths and chest compressions. 

Step 4. Give five rescue breaths

Tilt their head back, seal your mouth over their mouth and pinch their nose. Blow five times into the person's mouth.

Step 5. Give 30 chest compressions by pushing firmly in the middle of their chest up and down.

Push the chest hard and fast at a regular rate of 2 pushes per second.

Step 6. If the person starts to show signs of responsiveness - they open their eyes, start breathing normally, make noise or cough - stop compressions and start treating them for hypothermia.

If the person shows no signs of responsiveness, continue giving breaths and chest compressions.

Step 7. When someone has been drowning, their lungs may be full of the liquid they were in.

In this situation, giving rescue breaths is especially important to provide them with oxygen. In this situation, they may become responsive again once the liquid is removed form their lungs.

For more detailed first aid advice explore our skills pages:

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