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Do Drowning People Flail Their Arms?

Perhaps surprisingly, no — people do not flail around while drowning. The splashing sometimes seen — and usually portrayed as drowning on TV — is actually called aquatic distress. This happens before drowning occurs, when a person would still be able to grab life preserver or otherwise participate in his or her rescue. Drowning itself is very calm and quiet; a drowning person isn't able to yell for help because their lungs are filling with water.

More Drowning Facts:

  • Drowning victims often will look as if they're just treading water, totally fine, and looking up at the boat or a deck. They typically have their mouths open, head back and eyes open, but with unfocused staring. Calling to a potential drowner at this point to make sure they aren't drowning is a good idea.

  • The flailing arm scenario can't happen because when a person is drowning, the body's instinct is to push down to leverage themselves up out of the water. A drowning person can stay upright in the water for up to a minute before going under.

  • About 750 children drown each year in the US — many of whom are very near a parent who doesn't recognize what's happening. Drowning is second only to car accidents as the top cause of accidental deaths for children.
Discussion Comments
By anon189115 — On Jun 22, 2011

how is it possible that someone has their eyes fixated on something and their right hand balled into a fist?

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