11 Silent but Deadly Signs Someone’s About to Drown

Updated: Mar. 29, 2021

Drowning doesn't necessarily mean flailing arms and calling for help. These are the silent signs of drowning you need to know.

Woman enjoy sun bath and using mobile phone in swimming pool

Drowning commonly causes accidental death

Drowning is the second-most common cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 14 (just behind motor vehicle accidents.) In a 2004 study by a national safety group, 90 percent of children who drowned did so while under the care of an adult or teenager. In many cases, the study suggests, that person had a momentary lapse of attention.

But the fact is that often those watching don’t know what to look for—because drowning doesn’t look like drowning. To ward off a tragedy in the making, watch for these signs that someone is in trouble.

Child's feet in water on side of pool
Erica Richardson/Shutterstock

They are hyperventilating or gasping

When a drowning victim is gasping for air, they could also take water into the mouth, the American Red Cross lifeguard handbook notes. And for young children, who are in a horizontal face-down position, they are unable to keep the mouth about the water’s surface at all.

Air bubbles in clear blue water in pool (underwater shot), good for backgrounds

They can’t call for help

They have to be able to breathe before they can speak. When a person is drowning, their mouth sinks below and reappears above the surface of the water. There isn’t time for them to exhale, inhale, and call out. Memorize these beach safety rules that can seriously save your life.

single hand of drowning man in sea asking for help

They can’t wave for help

A drowning person instinctively extends their arms to the sides and presses down to lift their mouth out of the water; a child may extend her arms forward. They can’t use their arms to move toward a rescuer or reach for rescue equipment.

bright blue swimming pool with steps
robert paul van beets/Shutterstock

They remain upright in the water

There is no evidence of kicking either. They can struggle for only 20 to 60 seconds before going under. Don’t miss these summer health dangers you are probably ignoring.

swimming pool under water ...
Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Their eyes are glassy

They may also be unable to focus or simply closed.

Ocean wave High Angle View Of Rippled Water

Their face may be hard to see

Hair might be covering their forehead or eyes.

underwater pool
Dulyanut Swdp/Shutterstock

Their head is low in the water

Their mouth is at water level, or their head may be tilted back with the mouth open. A child’s head may fall forward. Here are more sneaky backyard dangers you need to be aware of this summer.

Yellow noodle in the swimming pool outdoor

They are quiet

Children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.

Pier on a cloudy day
Alessandro Sartori/Shutterstock

They don’t seem in distress

Sometimes the most important indicator that someone is drowning is that they doesn’t look like they are drowning. They may just seem to be looking up at the sky, shore, pool deck, or dock. Ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

floating ring on blue water swimpool with waves reflecting in the summer sun
elena moiseeva/Shutterstock

They are trying to roll over on their back

Another behavior of distressed swimmers and drowning victims is a vertical body position where the person is slightly leaning back. Look out for these hidden pool dangers everyone should know.

Background of view of the swimming pool with metal ladder underwater
Kateryna Mostova/Shutterstock

They are trying, and failing, to swim in a particular direction

According to the American Red Cross, a drowning victim can’t make any forward progress or tread while in the water. “A young child may appear to be doing a ‘doggy paddle’ but has no forward progress,” according to the official lifeguarding manual. All efforts are devoted strictly to getting air. Next, check out these water safety secrets all lifeguards want you to know.