Keeping teen swimmers safe

Teen swimmers are more likely to engage in high risk behavior around water
Teen swimmers are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors

Lois Lee, MD, MPH, works in Children’s Emergency Department Injury Prevention Program

As a physician, there are certain patients’ stories that stay with you long after you’ve treated them. The dog days of summer remind me of when I was a resident and treated a teenager who nearly drowned in a lake. The patient survived, but only after suffering severe brain damage. He was part of a larger group of kids who went to a nearby lake to escape the heat and blow off some steam, but one of them couldn’t swim well and got in trouble. My patient saw him struggling and bound out into the deep waters to help.

The drowning boy was rescued, but while others were attending to him, my patient went under the water. Because they were so preoccupied attending to the first boy, it took some time for the others to notice that he was missing. Once they realized, they quickly pulled him out of the water, but by that time the damage to his brain had already been done. After a prolonged stay in the intensive care unit he went home, unable to walk, talk or feed himself. He and his family were never the same again.

As a resident, it was a chilling reminder that drowning usually doesn’t look like it’s portrayed in the movies– where swimmers splash around and make a lot of noise before they’re fully submerged in the water– drowning in real life is often a silent event. It also made it abundantly clear that teenagers’ tendency to show off, or push their own boundaries, is extremely dangerous in swimming scenarios.

Kids that age have a natural urge to want to impress their peers and test their own limitations, so it’s not surprising they’re more likely than younger kids or adults to try to swim harder, farther or beyond their own abilities. Unfortunately, once water is involved, the consequences of their bravado can be devastating.

Most media coverage on water safety centers on toddlers, but teenagers, particularly males, are also at high risk for drowning. Teens are far more likely to swim alone or with others their own age, and do so without adult supervision. So unlike toddlers, who should be closely monitored at all times near water, if a teenager or older child becomes submerged in the water it’s likely that far more time may lapse before someone notices he or she is missing.

“Teenagers’ tendency to show off, or push their own boundaries, is extremely dangerous in swimming scenarios.”

Teenagers are also far more likely than younger kids to use drugs or alcohol in the vicinity of water, which can both impair their ability to swim and may increase their risk taking behavior. All parents know they have to warn their children about the dangers of drinking and driving, but the serious consequences of drinking and swimming should be discussed as well. And just like driver’s education is required for new drivers, teens who can’t swim well should take classes taught by trained professionals before they go near water.

Lois Lee, MD, MPH
Lois Lee, MD, MPH

In my opinion, any teen who plans on spending time around water should also take an official CPR training class. Few interventions can improve outcome after a significant water submersion event, but the rapid initiation of CPR in the field has been shown to improve a drowning victim’s chance of survival.  And if your child will be on a boat any time this summer, the importance of life jackets, or personal flotation devices (PFDs), must be emphasized as well.

In the end it doesn’t take long to discuss water safety with your teen—but it can go a very long way in keeping them safe.

Here’s a video that demonstrates the basics of pediatric CPR. While it’s good for you to watch and learn from this video, it’s important to note that viewing it doesn’t constitute formal CPR training. Any parent or caregiver who plans on having their child around water this summer is strongly recommended to take an official CPR training course.