Summer Swimming: Knowing the Risks before You Cool Off

With temperatures heating up across the country, many children and adults are looking for a place to cool off.

Many will look for relief at swimming pools, lakes and streams, as well as the ocean. While a day at the “beach” can be a fun way to pass the steamy summer days, it can turn disastrous quickly if proper water safety is not practiced.

On Tuesday, a 12-year-old New Brunswick, N.J. youth drown while cooling off in a pond on Rutgers University's campus.

And last week, a 10-year-old boy from Goose Creek, S.C., died from secondary drowning hours after swimming in a pool at his apartment complex.

The single most important thing anybody — adult or child — can do to ensure their safety in the water is to learn how to swim, according to Greg Stockton, a water safety spokesman with the American Red Cross.

“You should also practice good water safety,” said Stockton. “That means never swimming alone, swimming in places where there are lifeguards on duty, keeping an eye on children who don’t swim well and keeping all children, even those who can swim, within arms reach.”

The Red Cross encourages swimmers to watch out for the dangerous “too’s,” as in too hot, too tired, too cold, too far from safety, too little hydration and too much sun. Parents especially should make sure that children take breaks from swimming, stay hydrated and use sunscreen, Stockton said.

“Another thing that can be dangerous, and this mostly applies to boys in middle school or high school, is being overconfident,” Stockton said. “Boys shouldn’t go too far and shouldn’t assume that they can pick up where they left off because it is a new season.”

If swimmers are caught in an unsafe situation and fear they may drown, Stockton suggested staying relaxed, taking a deep breath and trying to lay on your back and kick-paddling to safety.

Swimmers who notice another person in trouble should notify a lifeguard and toss the person a flotation device, even a cooler will float. You should not attempt to get into the water to rescue a person unless you are trained to do so, Stockton said.

The Red Cross offers a variety of safe swimming tips for pools, lakes, and the ocean. For a complete list of tips visit the Red Cross’ water safety page.

Home Swimming Pools

“This is one of those areas where people get too confident, especially if it’s a home pool,” Stockton said. “People start to think ‘we’re in a totally safe environment’ and they end up letting their guard down.”

Parents should always keep children within “arm’s reach,” emphasize breaks and make sure children use U.S. Coast Guard-approved flotation devices. Also, diving should be avoided in all swimming pools unless the pool has a designated diving area where the water is at least nine-feet deep.”

— Never leave a child unobserved around water. Your eyes must be on the child at all times.

— Install a phone by the pool or keep a cordless phone nearby so that you can call 911 in an emergency.

— Learn Red Cross CPR and insist that babysitters, grandparents, and others who care for your child know CPR.

— Enclose the pool completely with a self-locking, self-closing fence with vertical bars.

The Ocean

“With the ocean, you want to be careful of the current,” Stockton said. “Look for flags or postings warning of dangerous currents. Look for a beach that is guarded. Dirty or foamy water could indicate a rip current. You also need to look out for a long shore current, which can take you parallel from the shore.”

The Red Cross also offers these tips:

— Stay within the designated swimming area, ideally within the visibility of a lifeguard.

— Check the surf conditions before you enter the water. Check to see if a warning flag is up or check with a lifeguard for water conditions, beach conditions, or any potential hazards.

— Stay away from piers, pilings, and diving platforms when in the water.

— Don’t try to swim against a current if caught in one. Swim gradually out of the current, by swimming across it.

Lakes and Rivers

Swimmers heading to a freshwater swimming hole should keep in mind that lakes and rivers can have currents also, Stockton said. Lake areas near dams and hydraulics can be especially rough and should be avoided.

“Also, most of us don’t swim in spring-fed, rock-bottom places where we can see everything so you might want to wear shoes to protect your feet,” he said. “You don’t want to do any diving unless it’s an area that has been specifically designated for diving.”

— Select a supervised area. A trained lifeguard who can help in an emergency is the best safety factor. Even good swimmers can have an unexpected medical emergency in the water.

— Select an area that is clean and well maintained. A clean bathhouse, clean restrooms, and a litter-free environment show the management’s concern for your health and safety.

— Select an area that has good water quality and safe natural conditions. Murky water, hidden underwater objects, unexpected drop-offs, and aquatic plant life are hazards.