Swimming is a great activity. Not only are there lots of physical benefits, it's also something the whole family can enjoy. But like a lot of things in life, it also comes with risk.
Drowning — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages. So water safety should be a concern no matter where you and your family swim.
General water safety
- Enroll children in swimming lessons at an early age. Risk of drowning is decreased by as much as 88% when children aged 1 to 4 years take swimming lessons. Adults can also benefit from refresher courses. Many cities have swimming lessons available through local parks and recreation programs as well as gyms with pools. You can also check with the Red Cross on registering for a swim class in your area.
- Learn Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). Knowing how to perform CPR might mean the difference between life and death. Check with the Red Cross about registering for a CPR class in your area.
- Use only U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets. Young and inexperienced swimmers may want to use a life jacket. Do not use any sort of air-filled or foam toys. They are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
- Children should always be supervised. Whether you're in the backyard, a public pool or at the beach, make sure there is a responsible, designated person to watch the water when children are swimming. Ignore your phone - it can take five seconds for a child to be submerged and 25 seconds to drown.
- Swim with a buddy. It's a best practice for swimmers of all ages, including adults.
- Avoid alcohol. It impairs your judgment, balance, coordination and your body's ability to stay warm. Avoid it when swimming and supervising children.
- Don't hyperventilate. Swimmers should avoid hyperventilating — breathing faster and/or deeper — before swimming underwater or trying to hold their breath for long periods of time. This can cause them to pass out and drown. It’s best to relax and breathe normally when swimming.
- Enter the water feet-first. Serious injuries — including paralysis — can occur from diving head first into unknown water and hitting the bottom. Enter headfirst only when the area is clearly marked for diving and has no obstructions.
- Test the water temperature before you get in. Jumping into cold water can shock your body and elevate your heart rate and blood pressure, and also slow your muscles, making it difficult to swim.
- Have a phone handy. No matter where you are swimming, the ability to call 911 in an emergency could be a lifesaver.
- Secure with appropriate barriers. It’s best to install a four-foot or taller fence around backyard pools and use self-closing and self-latching gates that open away from the pool.
- Consider safety alarms. If your house opens directly into the pool area, you may want to install a door alarm or self-closing door. Using a surface wave or underwater alarm will also give you added protection from accidental falls into the pool.
- If a child is missing, always check the pool first. If a child has fallen into the pool, every second counts in preventing an accidental drowning.
- Empty portable pools when not in use. Children can drown in as little as one inch of water. Make sure all portable inflatable and baby pools are drained and put away immediately after use.
- Remove toys from the pool when it is not in use. They can attract young children into the pool. It's best to keep them stored out of sight.
- Keep a safety kit handy. A first aid kit that includes a pair of scissors to cut hair, clothing or a pool cover should be kept within reach in case of an emergency. Lifesaving equipment such life rings and reaching poles are also recommended.
- Stay away from pool drains. Limbs, hair or clothing can become entangled if a drain is faulty. If you suspect they may not be functioning properly, ask your pool service provider to inspect them. Pool Safely has detailed information on preventing drain entrapments.
- Follow posted safety rules. These usually include no running, pushing or dunking.
Oceans, lakes and rivers
- Swim near lifeguards. It’s estimated that the chance of drowning at a beach protected by trained lifeguards is less than one in 18 million per year. Lifeguards can also advise you on the safest place to swim and what areas to avoid. If there’s no lifeguard on duty, pack your own flotation device for emergencies.
- Stay within designated swimming areas. They are usually marked by ropes or buoys and are more likely to be free of weeds, rocky underwater terrain and other dangers.
- Beware of rip currents. They are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes. The United States Lifesaving Association has a comprehensive survival guide on rip currents.
- Don't swim in polluted water. Pay attention to warning flags or alerts about contaminated water. Natural bodies of water aren't chemically treated like pools, so there's a higher risk of spreading bacteria. Don't drink the water, and plug your nose when your head is submerged. Never swim while sick or with an open cut, and always shower after swimming. And if you’re unsure whether water is clean enough to swim in, it’s best to not get in.
- Know your limits. Swimming in open water is much different than in a pool. Cold water, currents and other dangerous conditions can challenge even the strongest swimmers. If you are unsure about your limits, you may want to start out slowly and not venture too far from shore.
Play it safe
Avoid accidents and injury by taking common-sense precautions. You should always:
- Stay close to land and swim within designated swimming areas.
- Walk into unknown water — never dive. Rocks and other hazards could be just beneath the surface.
- Insist on wearing a life jacket if you or someone with you is a weak swimmer.
- Check the weather. Never swim when lightning is in the forecast.
- Take a break if you begin to feel cold, tired or hungry.
Know how to respond
Be prepared to react quickly to these emergency situations:
- Unconscious swimmer: If you can safely get the victim to land, do so quickly. Begin CPR and call 911.
- Hypothermia: Prevent further heat loss. Warm the victim up slowly and seek medical attention right away.
- Rip current: Swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the riptide, then swim back to shore. If you get tired, float on your back and kick your feet.
Knowledge is key when it comes to water and pool safety. Educating children from a very young age, and keeping yourself informed, can lead to a lifetime of healthy, safe swimmers.