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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

UC Davis pediatric specialists offer tips to keep kids water safe

Photo of young boy enjoying swimming pool activities Keep your children safe in and around swimming pools.

Temperatures are rising, summer is almost here and the cool, blue waters of swimming pools, rivers and lakes are already attracting plenty of swimmers. But the beginning of all this outdoor fun also means the start of the water accident season. UC Davis emergency room doctors take care of many of the drowning and near-drowning victims in the area. They know from experience that prevention is much easier and more successful than treatment.

Photo of Dr. Pretzlaff"The beginning of summer is a good time for parents to review water safety with their children. While no single measure can guarantee child safety, multiple layers of protection and meticulous supervision are crucial."
— Robert Pretzlaff, chief of critical care medicine, UC Davis Children's Hospital

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children under the age of 15 in the United States. But this is only part of the story. For every death among children 14 years and younger, five are seen in emergency rooms for near drowning and more than half of them are hospitalized or transferred to other facilities for treatment. These survivors are often left with profound brain damage and long-term disabilities.

“Everyone assumes that there's plenty of awareness about swimming safety,” said Robert Pretzlaff, chief of critical care medicine for the UC Davis Children's Hospital. “But every year, especially at the beginning of the summer season, our pediatric intensive care unit sees an increase in the number of near-drowning victims. These are frequently heartbreaking cases, where a child has suffered irreversible neurological injuries or, worse, never regains consciousness and dies. And many of these cases could have been prevented.”

Toddlers and Teens at High Risk

In certain situations, children are at especially high risk for drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control, among children ages 1 to 4 years, most drownings occur in residential swimming pools. In Sacramento County last year, for example, of the 13 pool drownings, eight of them involved youngsters under the age of 4. UC Davis Medical Center admitted 17 young patients in 2006 following near-drowning incidents, three of whom later died. Experts say that children don't generally splash when they have difficulty in the water, but slip silently under the surface. In most cases, supervising adults reported stepping away for less than five minutes.

National statistics reveal that older adolescent boys, ages 15 to 19, also have high rates of drowning. For this group, accidents tend to occur in natural bodies of water, such as lakes, streams or the ocean. That's especially true in the greater, 16-county Sacramento region, with its many recreational waterways. Last year, of the 89 people who drowned, 10 percent involved 15 to 19 year-olds. Similarly, at the national level, boats are involved in many older adolescent drowning cases, with a vast majority of victims not wearing life jackets. Alcohol, drugs or other risk-taking behaviors are frequently contributing factors for this age group, too.

“The beginning of summer is a good time for parents to review water safety with their children,” said Pretzlaff. “While no single measure can guarantee child safety, multiple layers of protection and meticulous supervision are crucial.”

Swimming Safety Reminders

As youngsters head into the main part of the swimming season, Pretzlaff says institutions like the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer a number of important reminders to help keep kids water safe:

  • Completely enclose home pools with at least four-foot fencing that cannot be slipped through or climbed. An iron fence with no decorative cutouts, vertical bars three inches apart, and horizontal bars at least 45 inches apart is recommended.

  • Gates should be self-closing and self-latching with the latches mounted near the top of the fence. While some pool covers and alarms may be helpful, they cannot substitute for adequate fencing. Soft pool covers may actually increase the risk of drowning if a child becomes caught underneath.

  • Supervise children every moment during swimming. Keep a phone and rescue equipment nearby. When finished, take all toys out of the pool area so children aren't tempted to retrieve anything.

  • Owners of home pools should take a basic CPR course, offered periodically by the Red Cross and other area organizations. A quick response can mean the difference between life and death in the event of an accident.

  • Talk with teenagers about the dangers of diving from bridges or rocks when visiting streams or lakes. Discuss how alcohol and drugs cloud judgment and can lead to deadly accidents. Early in the summer, rivers and lakes can be especially dangerous because of their icy cold water temperatures from the runoff of the melting snowpack.

  • Adults must set good examples by also adopting safe practices around water sports. Insist that everyone on a boat wear standard life jackets. Don't mix alcohol with boating or other water activities. Not only can booze cloud judgment, but drinking alcohol on a hot day can easily compound problems and make it easier to become dehydrated.

Operation River Safe

With two of the state's biggest rivers running through Sacramento, it is especially important to pay attention to safety around the area's popular waterways. Over the past year, the UC Davis Health System's Injury Prevention Program, with support from Kohls Cares for Kids, has donated more than 500 life vests to an innovative project called “Operation River Safe,” which is sponsored by the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. The district lends the life jackets to people at popular river recreation spots for use during the day. Users are asked to return the vests when they're finished so that others can use them, too. Helping complement the life vest project is the Injury Prevention Program's “One Size Does Not Fit All” campaign. It's an effort to highlight the importance making sure that safety items such as life jackets are appropriately sized for each user.