This is a question that likely every lifeguard—and many a parent—has asked at one time or another.
The answer is as simple as it is unsettling: To save the life of a drowning person, a lifeguard has about as much time as it takes to cook a soft-boiled egg, or roughly three minutes.
Drowning, as lifeguards know, takes place in a rapid and unspectacular series of stages. There is no screaming for help, or frantic waving. That’s why there are documented cases of children drowning within reach of a parent, and of friends watching—unaware—as another friend drowns. The untrained person expects drowning to look like it does on TV or in the movies: a dramatic, violent struggle to survive. But that’s a distressed swimmer, not a drowning one, although distressed swimmers are at risk of drowning.
To the contrary, a drowning victim may look almost immobile from above, swimming awkwardly without direction, and will drop below the water’s surface without a single cry of attention from lifeguards at all.
Drowning is also more common than people might think. Ten people die from unintentional drowning every day in the United States, making it the country’s fifth cause of unintentional injury death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are most at risk. More children ages 1 to 4 die of drowning than any other cause besides birth defects, and for those 14 and younger, drowning is second only to motor vehicle accidents as leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths. In fact, two of those 10 people who drown every day are no older than 14, the CDC reports.
Here, in stages, is what happens when a person is drowning:
• The person, panicking, becomes almost vertical in the water. There is little kicking or movement of the legs, and the arms are spread wide and flail sideways from the body, pressing down on the water in an attempt to stay buoyant. The head is either tilted back with the mouth open or low on the water's surface. These responses are involuntary, according to Francesco Pia, a lifeguard for 21 years in the Bronx and an authority on what he calls the Instinctive Drowning Response. Because the respiratory system is consumed by the need to breathe, speech is secondary; because the arms are struggling to keep the body afloat, they're not free to wave.
At this stage, the lifeguard is thought to have between 20 and 60 seconds to respond, according to Pia, and the victim has the best chance of full recovery. Time estimates vary depending on such factors as the weight of the person, and whether the water is salty or fresh, cold or warm.
• A person starting to sink will gulp water instead of air, which induces spasms in the larynx and causes the trachea’s vocal cords to close to protect the lungs. The drowning person won’t be breathing much water into the lungs at this point, but won’t be taking much oxygen into the bloodstream, either. Oxygen deprivation starts to affect brain functions in as little as 30 seconds.
• As more water enters the lungs, the spasms weaken and the trachea closes for shorter and shorter periods of time. The struggle to stay afloat can last for 3 minutes in adults, after which the person loses consciousness, the spasms stop, the lungs fill with water, and the person sinks. Children can stop to struggle in as little as 1 minute, the Merck Manual reports.
• At 4 minutes without oxygen, irreversible brain damage takes place, and the person dies or, if resuscitated, suffers lifelong injury.
So, how long does a lifeguard have to save a life? Much less time than anyone would wish for.
Grace M Frank is a freelance editor and writer, and the owner of Frank Communications, www.frank-comm.com. She worked for many years as a reporter and staff editor at leading newspapers, including The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and The Tampa Tribune, where she covered education, government, and health issues. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in political science and a master’s from the University of Chicago in international relations. In her free time, she enjoys bike riding, books, good food, and blogging.