Summer 101: Family Water Safety

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By Regan White, Novant Health

There’s nothing like cooling off from summer’s heat in a swimming pool, lake, river or the ocean. But before you hit the water, make sure your family knows how to stay safe.

“Everyone needs to be cognizant that every summer drownings happen, regardless of how many lifeguards may be around,” said Dr. Steven Tang of Novant Health UVA Health System Bristow Run Family Medicine. “Too often, parents think, ‘If something happens, the lifeguard is there,’ especially at the pool. For me, as a parent, having someone watching poolside is better than nothing, but you should always act as the primary supervisor for your children.”

Other tips for staying safe in and around water include:

Use age- and weight-appropriate flotation devices. Young children, inexperienced swimmers and anyone who is boating should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. “The head and neck should be supported, so every year you should review your water safety gear to ensure it’s still appropriate as your children grow,” Tang said.

But remember: Flotation devices alone aren’t enough. Life jackets, air- or foam-filled toys such as “water wings,” “noodles,” or inner tubes shouldn’t be the sole method of swim protection for young or inexperienced swimmers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10 people die every day from unintentional drowning. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States and is the second-leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4. The CDC notes that 80 percent of people who die from drowning are male, and the fatal unintentional drowning rate is significantly higher for African Americans than whites across all age groups. The disparity is greatest for black 11- to 12-year-olds, whose drowning rate in swimming pools is 10 times that of whites.

Learn to swim. “Everyone in your family should know how to swim,” Tang said. Enroll in age-appropriate American Red Cross water orientation and learn-to-swim courses.

Establish rules and ensure everyone follows them. Don’t swim alone or in bad weather. Be wary of cold temperatures, currents and underwater hazards. And avoid alcohol, which impairs judgment, balance, coordination and swimming and diving abilities.

Learn to recognize the signs that someone may be struggling. According to the Red Cross, swimmers who are in trouble may scream or splash, but most often they cannot or do not call out for help. Signs that people are struggling in the water include doggie paddling with no forward progress, hanging on to safety lines or back floating while arm-waving.

If you see someone struggling in the water, shout for help, throw a rescue or flotation device and call 911 if needed. Do not jump in and attempt to rescue the swimmer if you’re an untrained or weak swimmer.

Secure pools and hot tubs at home, too. Water barriers are a good drowning prevention tool, especially for young children at home. “Use barriers, safety covers and alarms to prevent young children from drowning,” Tang said. “Remove items that provide pool access and remove all toys from the pool when not in use, as these can attract young children.”

Learn CPR. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation performed by bystanders has been shown to save lives and improve outcomes in drowning victims. “Seconds count,” Tang said. “Knowing CPR can drastically improve outcomes.”

Beware what’s lurking in and around the water. Sometimes it’s not just the water that should cause you to worry. “You can’t assume the water you’re in is clean. There are a lot of bacterial diseases you can get in ponds, rivers and even the ocean,” Tang said. “Pools are chlorinated, but they’re also an area where things like warts and molluscum contagiosum can be passed more easily.” Do not swim if you have any open wounds, and wear sandals to prevent exposure to viruses or bacteria through the feet.


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