First aid for drowning


Good to know

  • Anyone rescued from drowning should be observed in hospital for 24 hours.
  • First aid focuses on getting the person out of the water and giving mouth-to-mouth and CPR as necessary.
  • Prevention measures include never leaving small children alone near water, and securing swimming pools.

Who is at risk of drowning?
On average, three children drown in South Africa each day. The majority of them were last seen in the home, in the care
of one or both parents at the time, and had been out of sight for under five minutes. Drowning often happens quickly
and with little noise to alert parents or childminders. 

Most drownings involving children aged one to four years happen in the home swimming pool.

With infants under a year, most drownings happen in the bath when the child is left alone for just a few minutes.

In adults, most drownings occur in males who are intoxicated. People often drown within a few metres of the seashore,
boat or dock. Suspect trouble if a swimmer's strokes become erratic and jerky or stop, or if the body sinks so only the head
shows above water. Spinal injuries should always be suspected in diving accidents.

First aid for drowning

  • Get the person out of the water, but don't try to rescue someone if it will endanger your own life. Rather call for help,
    and try to reach the person from land with a pole or rope. Tie yourself to something secure on shore if you have
    to swim to the person.
  • Do the ABCs: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Check for foreign bodies in the airways, like seaweed, but don't waste time
    trying to drain swallowed water. Mouth-to-mouth breathing can be tried in the water, but full CPR can only be done
    on a firm flat surface.
  • If you suspect a spinal injury and CPR is not required, don't move the person to land. Keep him lying face-up in
    the water until help arrives.
  • Once on shore, if the person is breathing, but is still unconscious and there are no spinal injuries, place him in the
    recovery position. Keep him warm.
  • All near-drowning victims should be observed in hospital for 24 hours. They are at risk for "secondary drowning",
    a serious condition in which the lung tissue swells after exposure to water.


  • Always supervise small children near water, even buckets. As little as 5cm of water poses a risk.
    Because of the disproportionate weight of their heads, toddlers can easily topple over and find it difficult to lift
    their heads to breathe.
  • Never leave a child under four alone in the bath, even for a second. Pull the plug when bath-time is over.
  • Make sure the whole family learns how to swim. Young children should always wear life vests (inflatable rings and
    water wings are not effective).
  • Fence off your pool and preferably also use a pool net. Get a lockable cover for jacuzzis or sunken baths. Remove
    the ladder from above-the-ground pools after use. Don't leave toys in and around the pool as children
    may be tempted to retrieve them. Never allow anyone to dive head-first into pools which are less than 2.5m deep.
  • At the beach, only swim in designated areas and with a lifeguard on duty. Don't stand with your back to the water
    as a sudden wave could knock you over; if you are caught in a current, swim parallel to the shore or tread water until
    help arrives.
  • No-one should swim alone or when intoxicated.
  • Learn CPR and make sure that your childminder knows first aid and rescue methods.

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