Tips to prevent drowning, No. 1 cause of unintentional injury-related death among children under 5; swim lessons reduce risk

By Melissa Patrick

Kentucky Health News

As summer approaches and people begin to head to pools, lakes, ponds and streams, it’s important to remember that drownings can happen to anyone in a matter of seconds – and that they are often preventable.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children under the age of 5, with most of the drownings happening in swimming pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children between the ages of 5 and 14, behind motor-vehicle crashes.

In 2022, 15 Kentucky children died from drowning and three experienced “near fatalities,” according to the state’s 2023 Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel annual report.

Here are some suggestions from the CDC to prevent drowning, which can happen in seconds and is often silent.

  • Learn and teach children basic swimming skills.
  • Build fences that fully enclose pools, with self-closing gates.
  • Designate a responsible adult to supervise children closely and constantly when they are near water – including bathtubs.
  • Children should wear life jackets for all activities around natural water, and weaker swimmers of all ages should also wear them around swimming pools. Do not rely on air-filled or foam toys; they are not safety devices. It’s also important to make sure a life jacket fits properly. Click here to learn how to choose the right life jacket.
  • Learn CPR, which could save a person’s life in the time it takes paramedics to arrive. Many organizations such as American Red Cross and American Heart Association offer CPR classes.

Swimming lessons reduce risk


From 2016 to 2021, 329 Kentuckians unintentionally drowned, with most of these deaths happening among people 45-54 and 65 and older. There were also 543 visits to the emergency departments related to unintentional drowning injuries and most of these were children under the age of 5, according to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center.

Nationwide, about 4,000 people a year in the U.S. unintentionally drown, and those deaths disproportionately affect age, racial and ethnic groups, according to a recent CDC report.

That same study found that the number of unintentional drownings were “significantly higher” during the pandemic (2020-22), than those in the pre-pandemic (2019).  And, it said, the drowning rates during the pandemic included “increases among populations that were already at elevated risk, such as children, older adults and Black persons.”

The report notes that data on drowning-risk factors are limited, but suggests that increased drownings in the pandemic could have been related to infrastructure disruptions, including limited access to supervised swimming settings.

The report stresses that basic swimming and water-safety skills training can reduce the risk for drowning, but social and structural barriers to accessing this training persist – especially among groups at the highest risk.

To that point, the study found that just over one half of U.S. adults have never taken a swimming lesson and that this rate was highest among Hispanics (72%), Blacks (63%) and other races or ethnicities (53%). Further, it found that 15% of adults reported not knowing how to swim.

“Recent increases in drowning rates, including those among populations already at high risk, have increased the urgency of implementing prevention strategies,” says the report.  “Basic swimming and water safety skills training can reduce the risk for drowning.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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