First Aid for Drowning

Updated June 2024.

What is Drowning?

Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid. Outcomes are classified as death, morbidity and no morbidity.

Worldwide, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. In the UK there are around 350 accidental deaths from drowning each year.

First Aid for Drowning

  • People who are in difficulty in the water may not always look like they do on TV. They may be struggling to breathe, but don’t expect a casualty to be shouting for help. It’s best to be aware of people in and around water at all times. If unsure – ask whether they need help. If they say yes, or you’re not sure – it’s time to act.
  • Alert lifeguards if they are present.
  • Don’t put yourself in danger and don’t go into the water. Cold water limits your ability to swim and whatever has caused the casualty to need help is likely to happen to you.
  • Call 999.
  • Encourage the person to stay calm and try to float on their back. Once they’ve caught their breath they may be able to get themselves to safety.
  • If there is a life ring, lifebuoy or throw bag close by – follow the instructions and use it. If neither are available throw anything that will float to the casualty.
  • Keep sight of the casualty so that you can direct the emergency services when they arrive.

How to provide First Aid to a drowned casualty

Perform a Primary Survey…

  • Check for danger.
  • Check for a response. 
  • If you haven’t already, shout for help (6 whistle blasts if you have a whistle on a lifejacket or personal flotation device) if you’re on your own…

How to treat a drowned casualty who is unresponsive

  • With one hand on their forehead and two fingers under their chin, tilt their head back and lift their chin.
  • Check for normal breathing for no longer than 10 seconds.
  • If they ARE breathing, check for and treat any bleeding and any other injuries.
  • Place the casualty in the safe airway position (recovery position), ideally on an insulated surface, allowing fluid to drain from their mouth.
  • Treat the casualty for hypothermia – keep the casualty warm using dry clothes, coats or blankets. Remember to insulate the casualty from the ground. Create a vapour barrier with a Blizzard Blanket or similar and use heat packs around the torso if available and you know how to.
  • Call 999 for emergency help if no one else has been able to.

If a drowned casualty is not breathing:

  • Get a bystander to call 999 for emergency help and to get a defibrillator. If you’re on your own, use the hands free function on your phone to call 999. Don’t leave the casualty to get a defibrillator yourself, the ambulance will bring one.
  • Give 5 initial rescue breaths:
    • with one hand on their forehead and two fingers under their chin, tilt their head back and lift their chin.
    • pinch their nose closed.
    • take a normal breath and place your lips around the casualty’s mouth, making a seal.
    • blow into the casualty’s mouth until their chest rises.
  • Provide 30 chest compressions:
    • kneel beside the casualty and put the heel of your hand in the centre of their chest.
    • put your other hand on top of the first hand and interlock your fingers, trying not to apply pressure to their ribs.
    • keep your arms straight and lean over the casualty.
    • press down hard to a third of the depth of the chest and allow the chest to come all the way back up between compressions.
    • aim for 2 compressions every second (a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute).
  • Provide 2 rescue breaths.
  • Keep repeating 30 chest compressions to 2 rescue breaths.

When to stop CPR

Continue CPR until:

  • The emergency services arrive and take over.
  • The person starts breathing normally and shows signs of life.
  • If a helper arrives with a defibrillator, ask them to switch the defibrillator on and follow the voice prompts. Make sure CPR is continued until the defibrillator tells you to stop CPR and start again as soon as it says it is safe to continue CPR to minimise any interruptions to CPR.

How to treat a drowned casualty who is responsive and breathing

  • If the casualty has been rescued from water, help them to get into the most comfortable position for them.
  • Treat the casualty for hypothermia – keep the casualty warm using dry clothes, coats or blankets. Remember to insulate the casualty from the ground. Create a vapour barrier with a Blizzard Blanket or similar and use heat packs around the torso if available and you know how to.
  • Call 999 for emergency help if necessary. Make sure the casualty receives medical assistance as they may have breathed in or ingested water (see below).
  • Keep the casualty comfortable, warm and supported. Monitor their vital signs and reassure them.

What is secondary drowning or dry drowning?

Terms including ‘secondary drowning’ and ‘dry drowning’ are no longer used. Water entering a casualty’s lungs can cause the lungs to be irritated, which can cause problems hours after a casualty has been rescued from water. This is very serious and can result in death. Anyone rescued from a drowning incident should seek urgent medical assistance. They may need to be observed for a short period in hospital even if they appear well immediately after the incident. 

Find out more about drowning and the ‘Float to Live’ campaign here:

rnli.org

This isn’t a substitute for first aid training. If you’d like to be able to deal with a variety of first aid issues with confidence, book a first aid course in Newcastle, the North East or wherever you need us! Get in touch for more information.