The beach or swimming pool is a ton of fun for kids. Plus, because swimming is low-impact and highly modifiable, swimming is a safe way to exercise for people of all ages.
Unfortunately, parents know that it also comes with some safety risks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, drowning is a major public health issue worldwide. In fact, drowning is one of the top five causes of death in people aged one to fourteen in 48 of 85 countries.
Worse, one in five people who die of drowning are aged 14 and under. Unfortunately, this should not come as a surprise--more than half of children aged 4 to 17 cannot perform the basic water safety skills needed to save their lives, even though 85% of Americans say they can swim.
According to the American Red Cross, the five basic swimming safety skills are:
- Step or jump into water over your head
- Return to the surface to float or tread water for one minute
- Turn in a full circle and find an exit
- Swim 25 yards to an exit without pausing
- Exit from the water, including exiting without a ladder
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning can be generally defined as death by suffocation due to immersion in water. This may be “wet” drowning (when the victim inhales water) or “dry” drowning (a less common condition where the airway closes due to spasms induced by water).
Regardless of the type, drowning can happen in 20 to 60 seconds in less than 1 inch of water, which makes everything from sinks to swimming pools potentially dangerous for babies and children.
In the United States, 80% of drowning victims are male. Children between the ages of one to four have the highest drowning rates--in fact, drowning is responsible for more deaths in this age group than any other cause except birth defects.
The highest drowning rates are seen in white male children from infancy to the age of four, followed by Native American and Alaskan Native children from infancy to the age of four and African American male adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19. However, these rates are derived from the whole population--if rates were determined by participation in water-based activities, white children would have a much higher drowning rate due to access to water-based activities.
Childhood Drowning Statistics
Statistics of Special Needs Kids
Other Risks When Swimming
Drowning remains the highest risk for children in the water, but it’s far from the only danger that children face. Depending on the swimming environment, there are a whole plethora of potential swimming safety risks, even in comparatively safe swimming environments.
Remember, just like drowning can happen in the blink of an eye, other swimming risks don’t need much time to become dangerous. Even a brief risk can result in a serious injury.
Exposure to Dangerous Wildlife
Swimming with wildlife can feel natural and exciting. Problem is, wildlife is...well, wild. And that introduces its own set of risks.
Take birds, for instance. You might not associate birds with swimming pools (other than ducks, anyway) but in reality, many types of birds are attracted to swimming pools. This is for the same reason they like birdbaths--to them, it’s a giant bathtub. Unfortunately, this means swimmers may come into contact with bird droppings, and there are several germs in bird droppings that can infect humans.
That said, it’s good to keep in mind the national park rule: it’s illegal to approach, harass, or feed any type of animal in national parks, no matter how small or apparently harmless. Your kids might think that animal is cute, but the animal thinks your kids are threatening.
Exposure to Hidden Jagged Rocks, Broken Glass, etc
When swimming in ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, you get the joy of experiencing natural water. Unfortunately, natural water also means a natural environment--including sharp rocks.
This risk is especially tricky because you can’t always see rocks in the water. You may not be able to tell that they’re sharp on a first pass, either, at least until you slip. In shallow water, it’s quite easy to cut yourself accidentally.
The other problem with cuts on rocks or broken glass is germs. Unlike pools, rivers, ponds, lakes, and the ocean all come with their own micro-ecosystem.
Getting Caught in a Riptide
A rip current is a powerful, fast-moving channel of water. These currents move at speeds of eight feet per second (faster than an Olympic swimmer) and are prevalent all along the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the United States.
A riptide is a specific type of rip current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of harbors, embayments, and estuaries.
When caught in a rip current, many swimmers panic and try to swim straight back to shore. This is actually one of the worst things you can do--you can’t outpace a rip current, and trying to fight it puts you at risk of drowning from fatigue. Instead, you should swim parallel to shore and approach land at a gradual angle.
The ocean is packed with all manner of marine life. And when you visit the ocean, you’re likely to encounter one in particular: jellyfish. Unfortunately for kids, jellyfish aren’t as much fun in real life as they are in cartoons.
Jellyfish are elegant but surprisingly simple critters. They don’t have brains, blood, or even hearts--only 5% of a jellyfish is solid matter, the rest is just water. Even so, jellyfish have a simple but elegant protective system: their tentacles, which are equipped with stingers.
Jellyfish don’t attack humans--jellyfish can only drift in water with limited control over its movements. Stings happen when you run into a stinger accidentally. The severity of the sting depends on:
- The jellyfish species
- The penetrating power of the nematocyst
- The thickness of the stung skin
- The victim’s susceptibility to venom
Most jellyfish stings aren’t lethal, but they can be quite painful.
Washed Out by Currents and Tides
The ocean might look like a single, ebbing and flowing body, but that’s not actually the case. Ocean water is always on the move, affecting the climate and local ecosystem.
You’re probably already familiar with the ocean tides. This is one of the most reliable phenomena in the entire world, long-period waves that move through the oceans in response to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Boaters are quite familiar with getting marooned in response to the retreating tide.
Ocean currents are abiotic features of the environment, continuous and directed movements of ocean water. Picture a person trying to walk in a straight line on a carousel--ocean currents are the same basic idea, deflected from a straight line of travel as they move across the Earth.
As with rip currents, you have to remember one thing: the ocean is more powerful than you are. You can’t try to fight it. Instead, plan around the tides and try to approach the shore at a gradual angle instead of fighting the current straight on.
Exposure to Severe Water Temperatures
Warm air and warm water are not the same things. A hot summer day is no predictor of water temperature--just think of the last time you set foot in a lake only to find the water was bitterly cold.
And while 50 degrees may not sound very cold, it can easily become dangerous. Cold water drains body heat four times faster than cold air, and plunging into cold water creates a significant shock to your system.
Exposure to Pool Chemicals
Your kids might not know how many chemicals you pour into the pool, but you do. The problem is that those pool chlorinating agents can be just as dangerous for swimmers as bacteria if you’re not careful. That’s why pool owners have to carefully maintain their chlorine balance--high enough to kill recreational water illnesses and bacteria, but low enough not to harm humans.