SUGARMAN The Personal Injury Law Firm

Drowning is deceptively easy to miss – stay safe this summer

Posted by Marianne C. LeBlanc

Meet Marianne

Marianne is a trial attorney with over two decades of experience in representing clients and a member of BBO and served on the Regulators Subcommittee of the SJC Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. With record-setting verdicts in MA, Marianne’s advocacy skills draw on her commitment to making a difference both for clients and the community at large. Meet Marianne


Recent heat in Massachusetts has people looking forward to cooling off in the pool or at the beach. Before diving in, take a moment to consider some of the safety concerns related to swimming.

“Dry Drowning” can kill hours or days after the victim is out of the water.

Across the United States, drowning is the fifth leading cause of accidental death, and the second leading cause of accidental death among children under 14. Submersion injuries, formerly known as near-drowning events, are even more common. These non-fatal injuries can cause brain damage in the form of learning disabilities, memory problems, or loss of basic motor skills.

Drowning doesn’t look like it does in movies and TV

Not everyone knows that drowning doesn’t look like drowning. While someone crying out and flailing their arms can be in genuine “aquatic distress,” that’s a short-lived period before “true” drowning begins. Strong signs of drowning include:

  1. They can’t speak or call for help. Drowning people are physically unable to speak or yell. The body prioritizes trying to breathe over speech.
  2. Head low with mouth at water level, or head tilted back with mouth open. Usually the mouth alternately sinks below and reappears above the water and isn’t in air long enough to exhale and inhale.
  3. They cannot wave for help. Drowning people instinctively “press down” on the water’s surface by extending their arms to the side and pushing down.
  4. They cannot control their arms. When the instinctive drowning response occurs, a drowning person literally cannot stop and wave for help or move toward a rescuer.
  5. They don’t use their legs, and remain upright in the water. We don’t know why but drowning victims don’t kick. And they usually only struggle on the surface for 20 to 60 seconds before going underwater.

This animated video by Slate illustrates what drowning looks like. Viewer discretion is advised. This video is not graphic but the sound may be unsettling.

Dry Drowning is a rare but deadly threat

A recent tragedy in Texas demonstrates the dangers posed by dry drowning and secondary drowning – especially to children. Dry drowning or secondary drowning can occur when water is inhaled, causing death hours or even days after the person is out of the water.

Dry drowning victims breathe in water, causing the vocal chords to spasm and closing off the airway. Secondary drowning is caused when a person breathes water into their lungs but retains consciousness and some ability to breathe. The trapped water slowly damages the lungs, reducing their ability to function.

These injuries are rare deadly threats, only occurring in about 2% of drowning incidents.

Signs of dry drowning or secondary drowning include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Exhaustion
  • Vomiting
  • Even hours or days after being in the water

Go to the emergency room immediately if your child has these symptoms after swimming, and inform the staff that your child was recently in the water, even if it was several days ago.

Respond as fast as you can

Emergency medical treatment for drowning and submersion injuries is imperative. If you rescue an unconscious swimmer, tell a bystander to call 9-1-1 immediately. A 9-1-1 dispatcher can guide you through how to perform chest compressions until help arrives, but the explanation can cost valuable time.

Know what to do beforehand: CPR certification is inexpensive and convenient. Proper training can mean the difference between life and death. In 2015, the American Heart Association changed the guidelines for how to perform CPR.

Keep your certification current, but in an emergency, don’t be afraid to render aid. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some type of “Good Samaritan” law, which offers legal protection to non-medical professionals offering assistance. (Details vary from state to state, though.)

In order to avoid drowning or submersion injuries:

  • Swim with a friend. Never swim alone.
  • Don’t drink and swim: the use of alcohol dramatically increases the risk of drowning.
  • Pay close attention to others in the water. A person may slip beneath the surface without splashing, flailing, or calling for help.
  • Take swimming lessons. Make sure you and your children are strong swimmers.
  • Use special caution around cloudy water, even in swimming pools. Tread cloudy pool water until you can see the bottom.
Drowning is the #2 cause of accidental death in children

Own a pool? You have a responsibility to make it safe.

Many drownings and submersion injuries are preventable. A pool in the backyard is attractive in the summer, but homeowners have a duty to make their pools safe. If you own a pool, consult your local building inspector if you have questions about state building code requirements. Read your homeowner’s insurance policy to make sure you have proper coverage in case of an accident.

Medical negligence can make injuries worse

Medical professionals have a duty to provide reasonable treatment to drowning and submersion injury victims in their care. Negligent medical treatment can worsen the effects of drowning and submersion injuries. Whether an injury or death has been caused by medical negligence involves complicated questions of law and fact, and may require consultation with an independent medical expert.

If you or a loved one suffered an injury in a pool or if you have a question about drowning or submersion injuries, or medical malpractice, SUGARMAN's personal injury lawyers can help. Fill out a contact form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or email and we will respond as soon as possible.