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Ask the Nurse – Drowning

Ask the Nurse

Ask the Nurse – First Aid for Drowning 

Text by Alison Snow (Registered Nurse)

As summer is nearly upon us, the thought of spending time at the pool or lake may fill us with joy. However, it is worth considering a few safety tips around water, so we can all appreciate our time without a dream day turning into a nightmare.

Drowning can happen quickly and quietly and causes an alarming number of fatalities every year. It is thus essential to supervise small children near water. Furthermore, it is crucial to know that young children can drown in just a few centimetres of water.

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If a child is unconscious in the water, remove them from the water as quickly as possible, but never put yourself in danger. Throw a lifebelt or rope if possible; otherwise, get help fast. Do not enter the water to rescue a drowning casualty unless you have been trained to do so.

First Aid Actions for Children

Once on dry land, turn the child on their back. Then, tilt their head and lift their chin to open the airway. Keep checking that the child is still breathing.

If they are not breathing, start resuscitation. Note that if it is warm and the child hasn’t been in the water very long, you may find they begin to regain consciousness quickly. Should this happens, put the child into the recovery position to help them drain water and vomit.

Conversely, if it is cold, they will not start to regain consciousness until their body has warmed up.  Start with five rescue breaths for a child or baby, then give thirty compressions to two breaths.

To give breaths, pinch the nose and put your mouth around their mouth and gently breathe.  For compressions, push hard and fast in the centre of the chest and keep going. Use the heel of one hand for a child 1-12 years of age, two fingers for a baby and two hands for teenagers and adults.

First aid Actions for Adults

Start with thirty chest compressions, then two rescue breaths (you can also only give chest compressions if you prefer).

Use a defibrillator immediately if there is one available. If the adult starts to regain consciousness, put them into the recovery position and keep checking if they are breathing.

Secondary Drowning

Anyone unconscious in the water should be assessed in the hospital as there is a real risk of suffering secondary drowning.

This condition can occur due to even a tiny amount of water entering the lungs. Then, the lungs become inflamed and irritated and start drawing fluid from the blood supplying the lungs into the alveoli (the air pockets). This reaction can happen up to 72 hours after the event and is life-threatening. The casualty may deteriorate suddenly and develop severe difficulty breathing. If this happens, phone an ambulance immediately.

Here are a few general water safety tips.
  • Always empty water play as soon as you have finished with it.
  • Never leave the bath running unattended.
  • Do not rely on buoyancy aids such as float seats, rubber rings, or armbands to keep your child safe.
  • Always supervise your children.

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Editor’s note:

We are grateful to Alison Snow for her contribution and ongoing support of the BCT.