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Cedars-Sinai Blog

Know the Signs of Water Distress

drowning, water safety, supervision, beach swimming

It takes very little time for a child to fall into a small body of water, or for an adult to get stuck in a rip current and not know how to get out. Others may be close by and watching but not recognize someone who is in "water distress."

With summer in full swing, everyone should be vigilant in and around water to prevent drownings.

"If your mouth is under water, you can drown, and it can happen in the blink of an eye," says Dr. Sam Torbati, co-chairman of Emergency Medicine at Cedars-Sinai. "Our emergency room has seen a lot of near-drownings and children are our most vulnerable."


"If your mouth is under water, you can drown, and it can happen in the blink of an eye."


Dr. Torbati urges following the Centers for Disease Control's guidelines for water safety, especially involving children. He also recommends learning to recognize swimmers who might be in distress in pools, lakes, and the ocean.

Drowning isn't always easy to recognize. The CDC warns that "children may drown with adults or other swimmers around them that aren't watching or don't understand what is happening."



What to look for

Signs of water distress to look for include:

  • Gasping for air
  • A weak swim stroke
  • Bobbing up and down in the water
  • Hair in the eyes
  • Swimming the wrong way in a current (if in the ocean)
  • Hand waving or arms out to the sides
  • Swimmers floating face down

Dr. Paul Silka, a member of the Professional Lifeguard Foundation, says people who are in water distress often can be identified as having an inefficient swim stroke. These people look like they are swimming backwards, or worse, going underwater.

"As the typical distress cycle progresses and a swimmer tires further, the stroke can reveal a 'climbing the ladder' motion," he says. "Their hair is often swept on to the face, and the swimmer's head can assume a sniffing posture as they struggle for air."


What to do

Although a swimmer may exhibit only some signs of water distress, the progression from stress to drowning does present an opportunity for intervention and rescue, said Lidia Barillas, a spokeswoman for LA County Fire Lifeguard Division.

If no lifeguard is present, and you can get the person out of the water safely, then do so. If not, immediately call for help, she said.

Stay safe at the beach

Last year, the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division made nearly 13,000 rescues. The majority were the result of someone in a rip current, the leading hazard to beachgoers.

The Los Angeles County Department Lifeguard Division encourages beachgoers to always:

  • Swim and surf near an open lifeguard tower
  • Check in with the lifeguard for current ocean conditions and hazards
  • Swim and surf within your ability
  • Keep off any rocks and jetties

Have a safe summer and keep an eye on each other out there!