6 water safety tips for swimming this summer

How to help prevent drowning accidents

It’s a terrible irony that swimming, one of the most fun and healthy recreational activities, is linked to drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of death for children in the US under the age of 14. Washington State has a higher drowning rate than the national average, but drowning can easily be prevented by learning about water safety and knowing how to respond in an emergency.

Essential water safety tips

1. Avoid dangerous swimming locations and risky behaviors

Eighty percent of drowning deaths are male. The exact reason why has been debated, but other known risk factors for everyone include:

  • Drinking alcohol while around water
  • Diving into shallow water or unfamiliar swimming holes
  • Not wearing a life jacket
  • Swimming in cold rivers, lakes or streams
  • Lack of swimming ability

Cold water can be especially risky, and in Washington state, lakes, streams and rivers tend to remain cold even when the days are hot. Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County director of public health says, “That’s the thing about swimming in cold water. At the beginning, you’re going to feel cold, you may be shivering. But once your body temperature drops you become confused.”

“This confusion can occur within minutes. And by the time you’re really in trouble, when you can’t swim anymore, you are going to be confused and drowsy. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are, because you can’t swim at that point. That’s why flotation devices are so important.”

2. Always wear and fully fasten, your life jacket

Back in the ‘90s, Washington state was a water safety pioneer, launching the country’s first life jacket loaner program. And it’s still going, with life preservers available to borrow at 180 sites. As stated in a Pew Charitable Trust report on efforts to decrease drowning, Sea Tow Foundation for Boating Safety and Education said that by 2013, at least 44 state agencies or boating safety organizations had life jacket loan programs at nearly 2,000 lakes, rivers and beaches across the United States.

Even so, it can be a struggle to persuade people to wear life jackets. Don Strick of the Clark County Health Department told the Battleground, Washington newspaper, The Reflector, “I think we need a celebrity to make life jackets cool. If teens see their friends doing it, then maybe they’ll put one on.”

In 2014 the National Institute of Health published a study on why people don’t wear life preservers. The study found that:

  • Recreational boaters who consider themselves good swimmers are less likely to wear a life jacket.
  • Low life jacket use was greater among those who drink alcohol while boating.
  • Adult boaters accompanied by children under 10 years old were more likely to report high life jacket use.
  • Using or having an inflatable life jacket was associated with higher life jacket use.

For families venturing into the pool, arm floats are great devices for kids, but Maggie Chin, a family physician for Kaiser Permanente, advises caution.

“They can also put them at risk for drowning if they’re not supervised,” she said, “because of the ability of those things to deflate, and they can put kids safety at risk because they give us a false sense of security.”

3. Take swimming lessons

Even if you know how to swim, there’s a good chance you might be overestimating your swimming ability. If you or your kids are feeling nervous about lessons, or just being in the water, that’s ok. Be nervous, and take the lessons anyway. A 2014 survey by the Red Cross found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of the self-described swimmers can perform all five of the basic skills that might help to save their life in the water. Download the free Red Cross Swim App for the latest in swim safety guidance to ensure your family stays safe.

Local swimming Olympic Gold Medalist Megan Quann Jendrick was featured in a story by the Seattle PI and said that beginning swimmers need to first learn how to relax in the water. She said, “You might try floating on your back to start or using a kickboard. The kickboard can really take the panicky feeling out of it.” In the story she also said even she gets “a little panicky” in the first moments she gets in open water for snorkeling.

Missy Franklin, four-time Olympic medalist said in a swim safety article for USA Swimming, “It’s not always easy for someone who is not comfortable in the water to take a swimming lesson. Be sure not to force it but give yourself the time that you or your child needs to be comfortable in the water. Find an instructor that’s right for you – everyone has a different style so find one that’s the best fit for you!”

Check out swimming lesson programs offered by your local YMCA or Parks and Recreation Department. This site from the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department gives you an idea of how much lessons might cost.

4. Never swim or go boating alone

“It takes only minutes in a few inches of water for a child to drown, and for each child under 15 years of age who drowns, 10 more receive emergency department care for non-fatal injuries, Many of these non-fatal injuries can result in brain damage,” says Rosemary Agostini, MD, founder and leader of Activity, Sports and Exercise Medicine at Kaiser Permanente Washington.

Dr. Agostini has specific swim safety tips you should learn and teach your children. You can get the full list of tips on the Kaiser Permanente Washington Activity, Sports and Exercise Medicine webpage. An abbreviated list of tips includes:

  • Always swim with a buddy. Never swim alone.
  • Swim only in designated swimming areas where lifeguards are present.
  • Actively supervise children in the water, stay at arm’s length, and limit distractions.

5. Be extra cautious when swimming in open water

Swimming in a pool is much easier than swimming in a lake, river, or ocean. There are no currents, vegetation, rocks, or watercraft in a pool. Given that Washingtonians love the great outdoors, we tend to flock to natural water settings and may not consider the challenges that open water presents that a sparkling swimming pool does not.

It’s not to say that swimming pools don’t pose a threat. According to the King County Public Health Department, during 2014 there were nine drowning deaths in open water, and six in private pools, spas or tubs.

6. Hiking? Be careful when fording streams or rivers

The Washington Trail Association says crossing streams and fording rivers are one of the more common hazards on the trail. Their advice is to cross water on a bridge when you can, be very mindful of fast moving rivers and keep a close eye on kids and pets near the water.

Before you pull on your swim togs and put on the sunscreen…

You can read more about summer safety for kids in the Pacific Northwest here.

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