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Today, ten people will die from unintentional drowning in the United States. Our pools, oceans, rivers, lakes – even bathtubs or buckets – present danger for thousands of Americans every year. But why? Many of us grow up near the ocean or other water sources, and we like to think we know our way in and out safely. How do these tragedies happen and to whom? Furthermore, what can we do to prevent one of the leading causes of unintentional injury death for people of all ages?

Swimming Injury Statistics

  • Drowning is a leading cause of injury death for young children ages 1 to 4.
  • From 2005-2009, there were approximately ten deaths per day in the United States from fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) – an average of 3,533 fatalities per year.
  • Drowning ranks as the 5th leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S.
  • Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male.
  • African American children 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of white children in the same age range. (African Americans between the ages of 11 and 12 drown in swimming pools at rate of 10 times more.)
  • Drowning causes more deaths in children (particularly African American and Hispanic children) ages 1-4 than anything else except congenital anomalies (birth defects). For children ages 1-14, fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death after motor vehicle crashes.
  • Children age 5 and younger account for nearly 75% of pool and spa deaths. African-American and Hispanic children are at especially high risk, since data shows that 70 percent of African American children and 62 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim
  • More than 50% of drowning victims treated in emergency departments require hospitalization or further care (compared with a hospitalization rate of about 6% for all unintentional injuries). These nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., permanent vegetative state).

Causes of swimming pool drownings

Swimming pool drownings are caused by a variety of factors, most of which are entirely preventable.  According to the CDC, men, children, and African Americans have the highest risk of unintentional drowning.

Some of the most common immediate causes of swimming pool drownings include:

  • Lack of swimming ability. Over-confident swimmers may exceed their physical abilities, or untrained swimmers may lack understanding of the risks involved. Many schools do not offer swim education, and underserved communities may not have access to public pools at all, contributing to the high numbers of non-swimmers and increased drowning risk in these communities.
  • Lack of protective barriers or fencing around the pool. People may not see or be aware of the pool, or children may wander off and accidentally fall in.
  • Lack of supervision. This is especially the case with young children who do not yet know how to swim. Someone must always have their eyes on any children in the vicinity of the pool.
  • Lack of adequate warning signs or markings indicating water depth. Lack of markers indicating water depth may result in people diving head-first into shallow waters or non-confident swimmers finding themselves in deep waters. Diving into shallow waters often results in severe injuries to the head or spinal cord.
  • Slip-and-falls. Decks are often made of materials that can be slippery when wet, and victims are at risk of hitting their head on the hard deck during a fall.  Such head trauma may result in loss of consciousness, which can significantly increase the risk of drowning.
  • Panic while in the water. Inexperienced swimmers may panic while in the water. This panic can lead to hyperventilation and movements that increase the likelihood that the swimmer will inhale water or sink below the surface.
  • Concussions, seizures, or heart attacks. Swimmers can suffer an unrelated health event while in the water, leading to water inhalation and temporary paralysis.
  • Use of alcohol or other impairing substances around a pool. Most accidental drownings among adults and adolescents involve the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol impairs judgment, slows reaction times, and significantly affects coordination and basic motor skills—all factors that significantly increase the risk of drowning.

What can we do?

Obviously, many injuries and deaths in and around water can be prevented. Children are greatly at risk and must be closely supervised – at the pool, in the bathtub, or in the ocean. If you own a pool, ensure that it cannot be accessed without your knowledge. Take swimming lessons if you have not already, and make that a priority for your children at a young age. Limit or prohibit the use of alcohol when enjoying the water. Respect the ocean and all bodies of water and understand the risks that surround you and your group. Never swim alone. Just as in sports, driving your car, or even crossing the road, take care of yourself and others and use appropriate caution even if you are just having fun.