Unintentional Drowning: Fact Sheet
How big is the problem?
- In 2007, there were 3,443 fatal unintentional drownings in the United States, averaging ten deaths per day. An additional 496 people died, from drowning and other causes, in boating-related incidents.1, 2
- More than one in five fatal drowning victims are children 14 and younger.1 For every child who dies from drowning, another four received emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.1
- Nonfatal drownings can cause brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities including memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., ., permanent vegetative state).
Who is most at risk?
- MALES: In 2007, males were 3.7 times more likely than females to die from unintentional drownings in the United States.1
- CHILDREN: In 2007, of all children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, almost 30% died from drowning.1 Although drowning rates have slowly declined,1,3 fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years.4
- Between 2000 and 2007, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans across all ages was 1.2 times that of whites. For American Indians and Alaskan Natives, this rate was 1.7 times that of whites.1
- Rates of fatal drowning are notably higher among these populations in certain age groups. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range. For American Indian and Alaskan Native children, the fatal drowning rate is 2.2 times higher than for white children.1
- Factors such as the physical environment (e.g., access to swimming pools) and a combination of social and cultural issues (e.g., valuing swimming skills and choosing recreational water-related activities) may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates. If minorities participate less in water-related activities than whites, their drowning rates (per exposure) may be higher than currently reported.5
What are the major risk factors?
- LACK OF BARRIERS AND SUPERVISION. Children under one year most often drown in bathtubs, buckets, or toilets.6 Among children ages 1 to 4 years, most drownings occur in residential swimming pools.6 Most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time.7 Barriers, such as pool fencing, can help prevent children from gaining access to the pool area without caregivers’ awareness.8
- AGE AND RECREATION IN NATURAL WATER SETTINGS (such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean). The percent of drownings in natural water settings increases with age. Most drownings among those over 15 years of age occur in natural water settings.9
- LACK OF LIFE JACKET USE IN RECREATIONAL BOATING. In 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports for 4,789 boating incidents; 3,331 boaters were reported injured, and 709 died. Among those who drowned, 9 out of 10 were not wearing life jackets. Most boating fatalities that occurred during 2008 (72%) were caused by drowning with 90% of victims not wearing life jackets; the remainder were due to trauma, hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, or other causes.2
- ALCOHOL USE. Alcohol use is involved in up to half of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation and about one in five reported boating fatalities.10, 11 Alcohol influences balance, coordination, and judgment, and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.12
- SEIZURE DISORDERS. For persons with seizure disorders, drowning is the most common cause of unintentional injury death, with the bathtub as the site of highest drowning risk.13
What has CDC research found?
A CDC study about self-reported swimming ability14 found that:
- Younger respondents reported greater swimming ability than older respondents.
- Self-reported ability increased with level of education.
- Among racial groups, African Americans reported the most limited swimming ability.
- Men of all ages, races, and educational levels consistently reported greater swimming ability than women.
Details about additional studies and their findings are highlighted in Water-Related Injuries: CDC Activities.
How can drowning be prevented?
To help prevent water-related injuries:1, 8, 9, 12, 13,15
- SUPERVISION. Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while in the bath and all children swimming or playing in or around water. Supervisors of preschool children should provide “touch supervision”, be close enough to reach the child at all times. Adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn) while supervising children.
- BUDDY SYSTEM. Always swim with a buddy. Select swimming sites that have lifeguards whenever possible.
- AVOID ALCOHOL. Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating, or water skiing. Do not drink alcohol while supervising children.
- LEARN TO SWIM. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. . However, constant, careful supervision and barriers such as pool fencing are necessary even when children have completed swimming classes.
- LEARN CARDIOPULMONARY RESUSCITATION (CPR). In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone’s life. CPR performed by bystanders has been shown to improve outcomes in drowning victims.
- DO NOT USE AIR-FILLED OR FOAM TOYS. Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as “water wings”, “noodles”, or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets (personal flotation devices). These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
If you have a swimming pool at home:
- FOUR-SIDED FENCING. Install a four-sided pool fence that completely separates the house and play area of the yard from the pool area. The fence should be at least 4 feet high. Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children. Also, consider additional barriers such as automatic door locks or alarms to prevent access or notify you if someone enters the pool area.
- CLEAR THE POOL AND DECK OF TOYS. Remove floats, balls and other toys from the pool and surrounding area immediately after use. The presence of these toys may encourage children to enter the pool area unsupervised or lean over the pool and potentially fall in.
If you are in or around natural bodies of water:
- Know the local weather conditions and forecast before swimming or boating. Strong winds and thunderstorms with lightning strikes are dangerous.
- Use U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets when boating, regardless of distance to be traveled, size of boat, or swimming ability of boaters.
- Know the meaning of and obey warnings represented by colored beach flags. Different beaches may use different colors but a commonly used series include: Double Red denoting that the beach is closed to the public; Single Red signaling a high hazard (e.g., strong surf or currents); Yellow signaling a medium hazard; Green denoting calm conditions although caution is still necessary; Purple flown with either Red or Yellow signaling the presence of dangerous marine life (not sharks). (ref: http://www.ilsf.org/index.php?q=rescue/iso-standards-beach-safety-information-flags)
- Watch for dangerous waves and signs of rip currents (e.g., water that is discolored and choppy, foamy, or filled with debris and moving in a channel away from shore). If you are caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore; once free of the current, swim toward shore.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [online]. (2009) [cited 2009 Nov 24]. Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wide-ranging OnLine Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) [online]. (2010) Available from URL: http://wonder.cdc.gov/mortsql.html
- Branche CM. What is happening with drowning rates in the United States? In: Fletemeyer JR and Freas SJ, editors. Drowning: New perspectives on intervention and prevention. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press LLC; 1999.
- Borse NN, Gilchrist J, Dellinger AM, Rudd RA, Ballesteros MF, Sleet DA. CDC Childhood Injury Report: Patterns of Unintentional Injuries among 0-19 Year Olds in the United States, 2000-2006. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2008.
- Branche CM, Dellinger AM, Sleet DA, Gilchrist J, Olson SJ. Unintentional injuries: the burden, risks and preventive strategies to address diversity. In: Livingston IL, editor. Praeger handbook of Black American health (2nd edition): Policies and issues behind disparities in health. Westport (CT): Praeger Publishers; 2004. p. 317-27.
- Brenner RA, Trumble AC, Smith GS, Kessler EP, Overpeck MD. Where children drown, United States, 1995. Pediatrics 2001;108(1):85–9.
- Present P. Child drowning study. A report on the epidemiology of drowning in residential pools to children under age five. Washington (DC): Consumer Product Safety Commission (US); 1987.
- U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Safety barrier guidelines for home pools [online]. [cited 2007 Mar 21]. Available from URL:http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/pool.pdf
- Gilchrist J, Gotsch K, Ryan GW. Nonfatal and Fatal Drownings in Recreational Water Settings—United States, 2001 and 2002. MMWR 2004;53(21):447–52.
- U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security (US). Recreational Boating Statistics – 2008 [online]. 2009. [cited 2009 Nov 24]. Available from URL:http://www.uscgboating.org/assets/1/Publications/Boating_Statistics_2008.pdf
- Howland J, Mangione T, Hingson R, Smith G, Bell N. Alcohol as a risk factor for drowning and other aquatic injuries. In: Watson RR, editor. Alcohol and accidents. Drug and alcohol abuse reviews. Vol 7. Totowa (NJ): Humana Press, Inc.; 1995.
- Howland J, Hingson R. Alcohol as a risk factor for drownings: A review of the literature (1950–1985). Accident Analysis and Prevention 1988;20(1):19–25.
- Smith GS, Kraus JF. Alcohol and residential, recreational, and occupational injuries: A review of the epidemiologic evidence. Annual Rev of Public Health 1988;9:99–121.
- Quan L, Bennett E, Branche C. Interventions to prevent drowning. In Doll L, Bonzo S, Mercy J, Sleet D (Eds). Handbook of injury and violence prevention. New York: Springer, 2007
- Gilchrist J, Sacks JJ, Branche CM. Self-reported swimming ability in U.S. adults, 1994. Public Health Reports 2000;115(2–3):110–1.
- Brenner RA, Taneja GS, Haynie DL, Trumble AC, Qian C, Klinger RM, Klevanoff MA. Association between swimming lessons and drowning in childhood: A case-control study. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 2009;163(3):203-10.