What is shallow water blackout?

Last week a young college student drowned.

Normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the media surrounding this tragic event—Dartmouth swimmer dies in pool mishap on vacation—but sadly the young man happens to be the son of friends.

He was a life-long swimmer and was on his university’s swim team; the least likely person, you would think, to drown.

But I learned something about a potential danger to young swimmers, and want to help raise awareness about  “shallow water blackout.”

Experienced and competitive swimmers are most at risk, as they may challenge themselves or others to do a “100”, which is swimming four laps across the pool without coming up for air.

To extend the length of time they can hold their breath, the swimmers often hyperventilate first, which raises their blood’s oxygen level, but decreases the carbon dioxide level.

Usually when we try to hold our breath, our blood’s carbon dioxide level increases, which triggers our brains to override our breath holding and force us to take a deep breath.

But because the swimmers’ blood carbon dioxide level is so low, the brain does not receive the signal to “Breathe!” As a result of a low oxygen level as well, the swimmer passes out underwater, then the body reflexively takes a deep breath and the swimmer drowns.

Dr. Rhonda Milner’s son died as a result of shallow water blackout. She founded the Shallow Water Blackout Prevention Organization to help raise awareness among swimmers, coaches and parents.

Last year the organization produced this public service announcement featuring Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

As the video states, shallow water blackout deaths are “…totally preventable by proper education in training techniques.”

If you are a competitive swimmer, visit the organization’s website to learn more. If you have a child that participates on a swim team, talk to your kids and their coaches to find out if they know about the risk of shallow water blackout and, if so, what steps they are taking to prevent it from happening.

Shallow water blackout drownings are relatively uncommon, thank goodness, but even one is too many when it is such a tragic and preventable death.

Also, if you or your children spend a lot of time around swimming pools, consider taking a first aid class to learn the basics of preventing and responding to a drowning. You could save a life!

Related post: Learn CPR and first aid

Sláinte,

Frugal Nurse

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