Why are more Americans drowning?

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 30, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Deaths due to drowning are on the rise in the US. Over 4,500 people drowned each year in the US between 2020 and 2022—about 500 more deaths each year compared to 2019. 

  • Experts say that physicians have to prepare their emergency rooms for an influx of drowning patients, but the best way to manage drowning is to prevent it.

Drowning is a global public health problem.[] The incidence of deaths due to drowning have been on the rise in the US in recent years, according to May 2024 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).[] From 2020 to 2022, over 4,500 people died from drowning each year, a 20% increase from 2019. 

Certain people are at greater risk, such as children, older people, and select ethnic groups. As the CDC notes, drowning is the number one cause of death for children between the ages of one and four. People 65 and older experienced the second highest rate of drowning. In fact, those between the ages of 65 and 74 saw a 19% increase in drowning deaths in 2022 compared to 2019. In 2021, drowning deaths also increased by 28% among Black people compared to 2019.

Just over half (55%) of US adults have never taken a swimming lesson. This especially impacts Black and Brown Americans. For example, 37% of Black adults say they don’t know how to swim, while 72% of Hispanic adults reported never having taken a swimming lesson. 

To reduce the number of deaths, the CDC says, it’s key that swimming lessons are made accessible to everyone, especially those who are at greater risk of drowning. Additional variables include racial or cultural barriers that might prevent people from taking lessons, the CDC also notes.

The US’s history of racial segregation also plays a key role. “[S]egregation led to few options, and many of the available pools were often poorly maintained or too shallow for swimming,” the CDC notes. “Many public pools closed after racial desegregation, and communities built fewer new pools over the decades. The legacy of this and other discrimination may influence current generations’ attitudes about and participation in swimming lessons.” 

The CDC says that the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a key role in the increase in drowning deaths, as pools and swimming lessons were either shut down or short-staffed. Treating drowning patients

According to Sarah Lee, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center and clinical instructor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, emergency rooms may see an uptick in patients due to drowning (or other issues, such as heat stroke or exhaustion), especially with the summer beach-going season upon us. “Patients who present with drowning-related injuries will be resuscitated with airway management, and often be evaluated carefully for traumatic injuries as well,” Dr. Lee says. 

“They are evaluated carefully for traumatic injuries and signs of hypoxia, often with imaging such as x-rays or CT scans. Patients will likely be monitored in the emergency department for several hours, and those with concerning findings may need to be admitted to the hospital,” Dr. Lee adds. Preventing drowning requires a multifaceted approach “Drowning incidents can happen quickly and quietly. It is ideal for anyone, both children and adults, to learn basic swimming and safety skills and to wear a life jacket if they are going to be near water,” Dr. Lee says. “Try to use the buddy system so that someone can alert others for help in the case of any accidents. For those in communities where swimming lessons may not be easily accessible, consider learning CPR, which is an easy but life-saving skill.”

“So much about drowning prevention has to do with prehospital care more than anything else,” adds Heather Hinshelwood, MD, an emergency physician at The Fraum Center. “[This includes] public education to include safety measures to prevent kids from accessing pools unattended; adults keeping a close eye (while sober!) on children near water and teaching people how to swim; and adequate staffing of lifeguards.” Beyond that, she says, bystander care in the event of a drowning or near drowning, along with EMS care of the patient, are crucial. 

Tourism also plays a major role in drowning incidents and deaths. “In Florida and coastal South Carolina, a big uptick is seen with the influx of tourists from out of state that don't understand how powerful the ocean can be and how to respond to riptides,” Dr. Hinshelwood explains. “Signs are posted on most beaches about this, but they may not be noticed in the enthusiasm of vacation[ing]. All of my drowning cases above the age of 10 have been visitors from out of state to the location I'm working.”

What this means for you To reduce drowning deaths, people need expanded access to swimming lessons. More so, people must keep a watchful eye on swimmers, especially children. Beyond this, medical professionals must be prepared to practice resuscitation and airway management for drowning patients who present to the emergency department. Physicians should also tell patients about the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan, which is designed to help states and local communities enact ways to prevent drowning.

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