Pool Safety: 10 Tips for Keeping Your Family Safe at the PoolJune 12, 2023 - Katie McCallum
Knowing how to keep your family safe at the pool is important year-round — but there's no time like the summer to brush up on pool safety.
"It can be a sobering topic, but it's an incredibly important one to discuss," says Dr. J. Finkelstein, medical director of Houston Methodist's emergency departments. "We see and treat near-drownings in the ER every year. Young children, especially, can drown very quickly — and fairly quietly."
These may seem like rare, infrequent events, but the actual incident rates the CDC provides will likely surprise you:
- Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1 to 4
- It's the No. 2 cause of death for kids and young teens (ages 5 to 14), behind only motor vehicle accidents
- There are 4,000 fatal drownings every year in the U.S., averaging around 11 per day
- There are also about 8,000 non-fatal drownings a year, almost half of which require hospitalization
"When we're talking about near-drownings, it's important to understand that these accidents can lead to brain damage, lung injury and serious disability," adds Dr. Finkelstein.
He adds that they also see other pool-related accidents in the ER, including:
- Slips and falls that can lead to broken bones, lacerations and forehead abrasions
- Pool drain suction accidents, which happen mostly in older pools or pools not using the proper drain safety equipment, are a lesser-known cause of drowning
- Significant sunburns, which can cover large portions of the body, cause severe dehydration in young children or second-degree burns resulting in skin blisters
- Diving injuries, which are fairly rare but can be very serious
Importantly, Dr. Finkelstein stresses that pool accidents are preventable.
Here are ten pool safety tips to follow:
1. Know the factors that increase the risk of pool accidents
Risk factors that make drownings and other pool accidents more likely include:
- Not being able to swim
- Lack of direct supervision
- No pool safety fence or pool alarm
- Not using a life jacket when appropriate
- Consuming alcohol or using drugs while in or near water, or while supervising children in or near water
- Having certain health issues or taking certain medications
2. Take swim lessons
Once age-appropriate, sign your child up for formal swimming lessons. As kids age, they will also need to be educated on water safety skills, like not running on slippery pool surfaces or diving into shallow water.
Drowning can happen to anyone who has access to water, so adults who haven't learned how to swim should also consider taking formal swim lessons.
3. Only let kids swim when directly supervised
It's important to reiterate how quickly and quietly children can drown.
"Small children are head-heavy and — like a beetle stuck on its back — can't flip themselves over easily, so they can drown very quickly. It only takes a few minutes," says Dr. Finkelstein. "And in the struggle and panic, they don't think to call for help, so it's often a fairly silent affair."
It's why Dr. Finkelstein says direct supervision is one of the most important pool safety steps, even for kids with swim training.
"Stay in arm's reach and don't step away for a second," Dr. Finkelstein stresses.
Avoid distracting activities, like reading or using your phone, while supervising kids at a pool. It's also a good idea for adults who are supervising children to be CPR-certified.
4. Use life vests on young children
Even for those who've had some amount of swim lessons, it's best for young children to always wear a life jacket while in the water.
Some specialty vests are even designed to help keep very young children from tipping face-first toward the water.
"These vests inflate in such a way that it inherently keeps them right-side-up," adds Dr. Finkelstein.
5. Install a pool safety fence or pool alarm
If you have a pool at home, it's important to install fencing that completely encloses it and includes a child-proof lock on the gate. This will help keep kids safe from the pool when they're outside without supervision.
"Modern technology offers newer, more sophisticated solutions, like pool alarms," says Dr. Finkelstein. "These work by sending an alarm to your smartphone if a pool gate is unlocked or the pool surface is disturbed."
Lastly, if you have a pool at home and a child is missing, always check the pool first, says Dr. Finkelstein.
6. Stay away from drains in pools
"It's most common in older pools, but it is possible for small kids to get suctioned to the bottom of a pool by a strong drain," says Dr. Finkelstein.
They can be somewhat mesmerizing to children, but don't let kids play with or around a pool drain. If you own a pool, make sure all drains are protected by an anti-entrapment drain cover.
7. Don't hold your breath for a long time
Key to water safety is knowing the risks of hyperventilating before swimming underwater or trying to hold your breath for long time while underwater. Explain to your kids and teens that this can lead to passing out and drowning.
According to the CDC, nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male. While several factors likely play into this, the agency cites increased risk-taking behaviors in boys and men as a potential reason.
8. Avoid alcohol and drugs — swim (and supervise swimming) sober
Know that alcohol, drugs and water don't mix since they can lead to decreased motor skills and coordination, but also impair judgement — leading people to make riskier decisions or take riskier actions.
"Alcohol is the common denominator in many pool accidents," warns Dr. Finkelstein. "Whether that's due to the injured adult or teen being under the influence themselves, or a supervising adult's altered judgment leading to a child suffering an injury on their watch."
9. Know the medical conditions and medications that increase drowning risk
Take extra precautions — one-on-one supervision, wearing a life jacket — if you or someone you love has a health condition that increases the risk of drowning, including:
- Seizure disorder, such as epilepsy
- Heart conditions
Psychotropic medications — commonly prescribed for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions — can increase the risk of drowning, in particular, because of the alcohol-like side effects they can cause.
10. Take steps to prevent sunburn
Wearing sunscreen is an important skin cancer prevention step that's always important when outdoors and in the sun, including while at the pool. And as mentioned, sunburns can sometimes be severe.
Follow these sun safety steps:
- Be sure to generously apply a sunscreen that's broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ and water-resistant
- Reapply sunscreen according to the packaging instructions, including after toweling off
- Take extra steps to protect skin from the sun, including wearing sun-protective hats, swim shirts and sunglasses, as well as seeking shade often