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Water Safety

Medically reviewed by: Sarah K. Romero, MD

Hanging out at the pool or the beach on a hot day is a great way to beat the heat. But before you dive in, learn a little bit about water safety.

Swimming Smarts

Buddy up! Always swim with a partner, every time — whether you're swimming in a backyard pool or in a lake. Even experienced swimmers can become tired or get muscle cramps, which can make it hard to get out of the water. When people swim together, they can help each other or go for help in an emergency.

Get skilled. It's good to be prepared. Above all, know how to swim. It's never too late to learn. Learning some life-saving skills, such as CPR and rescue techniques, can help you save a life. Many organizations offer free classes for both beginning and experienced swimmers and boaters. Check with your YMCA or YWCA, local hospital, or chapter of the Red Cross. You also can search online:

Know your limits. If you're not a good swimmer or you're just learning to swim, don't go in water that's so deep you can't touch the bottom and don't try to keep up with skilled swimmers. That can be hard, especially if your friends are challenging you. But it's a pretty sure bet they'd rather have you safe and alive.

If you are a good swimmer and have had lessons, keep an eye on friends who aren't as comfortable or as skilled as you are. If it seems like they're getting tired or a little uneasy, suggest taking a break from swimming for a while.

Swim in safe areas only. It's always best to swim in places that are supervised by a lifeguard. No one can anticipate changing ocean currents, rip currents, sudden storms, or other hidden dangers. If something does go wrong, lifeguards are trained in rescue techniques.

Swimming in an open body of water (like a river, lake, or ocean) is different from swimming in a pool. You need more energy to handle the currents and other changing conditions in the open water. Strongly consider wearing a personal floatation device in open bodies of water, even if you are a strong swimmer.

If find yourself caught in a rip current, don't panic and don't fight the current. Try to swim parallel to the shore until you can get out of the current, which is usually a narrow channel of water. Gradually try to make your way back to shore as you do so. If you can't swim away from the current, stay calm and float with it. The current will usually slow down. When it does, you can swim to shore.

Even a very good swimmer who tries to swim against a strong current will get worn out. If you'll be swimming in an open body of water, it's a great idea to take swimming lessons that offer tips on handling unexpected hazards.

Some areas with extremely strong currents are off limits when it comes to swimming. Do your research so you know where not to swim, and pay attention to any warning signs posted in the area.

Be careful about diving. Diving injuries can cause head injury, permanent spinal cord damage, paralysis, and sometimes even death. Protect yourself by only diving in areas known to be safe, such as the deep end of a supervised pool. If an area has "No Diving" or "No Swimming" signs, pay attention to them. A "No Diving" sign means the water isn't safe for a head-first entry. Even if you plan to jump in feet first, check the water's depth before you leap to make sure there are no hidden rocks or other hazards. Lakes or rivers can be cloudy and hazards may be hard to see.

Watch the sun. Sun reflecting off the water or off sand can intensify the burning rays. You might not feel sunburned when the water feels cool and refreshing, but the pain will catch up with you later. Remember to reapply sunscreen often and cover up much of the time. Don't forget your hat, UV protection sunglasses, and protective clothing.

Drink plenty of liquids. It's easy to get dehydrated in the sun, particularly if you're active and sweating. Keep up with fluids — particularly water — to prevent dehydration. Dizziness, feeling lightheaded, or nausea can be signs of dehydration and overheating.

Getting too cool. Staying in very cool water for long periods can lower your body temperature. A temperature of 70°F (20°C) is nice on land, but water below that will feel cold to most swimmers. Your body temperature drops far more quickly in water than it does on land. And when you're swimming, you're using energy and losing body heat even faster. Check yourself when swimming in cold water and stay close to shore. If you feel your body start to shiver or your muscles cramp up, get out of the water right away. It doesn't take long for hypothermia to set in.

Alcohol and water never mix. Alcohol is involved in many water-related injuries and up to half of all water-related deaths. The statistics for teen guys are particularly scary: One half of all teen male drownings are tied to alcohol use.

At the Water Park

OK, so you do more splashing than swimming, but your swimming skill level is important at the water park too. Take a moment to read warnings and other signs. Each area in the water park can have different depths of water, so make sure you pay attention.

If you don't know how to swim, wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when necessary, and be sure there's a lifeguard on duty. Do slide runs feet-first or you'll put yourself at risk for a ride that's a lot less fun — one to your doctor or dentist.

Boating Safety

Did you know that more people die in boating accidents every year than in airplane crashes or train wrecks? But a little common sense can make boating both enjoyable and safe. 

The captain or person handling the boat should be sober, experienced, and competent. One third of boating deaths are alcohol-related. Alcohol distorts our judgment no matter where we are — but it's even greater on the water. Because there are no road signs or lane markers on the water and the weather can be unpredictable, it's important to think quickly and react well under pressure. If you're drinking, this can be almost impossible.

Also, the U.S. Coast Guard warns about a condition called boater's fatigue, which means that the wind, noise, heat, and vibration of the boat all combine to wear you down when you're on the water.

Weather. Before boating, be sure the weather conditions are safe. Local radio, internet, or TV stations can provide updated local forecast information.

Personal flotation devices. It's always a good idea for everyone on the boat to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket, whether the boat is a large speedboat or a canoe — and whether you're a good swimmer or not. Wearing a life jacket (also known as a personal flotation device, or PFD) is the law in some states for certain age groups, and you could face a stiff penalty for breaking it.

Your state may also require that you wear an approved life jacket for water skiing and other on-water activities. Wearing a PFD is like wearing a helmet while biking. It may take a few minutes to get used to it, but it definitely can be a lifesaver. Don't leave land without it.

Stay in touch. Before going out on a boat, let somebody on land know your float plan (where you are going and about how long you'll be out). That way, if you do get into trouble, someone will have an idea of where to look for you. If you're going to be on the water for a long time, it's a good idea to have a radio with you so you can check the weather reports. Water conducts electricity, so if you hear a storm warning, get off the water as quickly as you can.

Jet skis. When using jet skis or personal watercraft, follow the same rules as for boating. You should also check out the laws in your area governing the use of personal watercraft. Some states won't allow people under a certain age to operate these devices; others require you to take a course or pass a test before you can ride one.

Most people don't think much about water safety, but drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death. So don't let paying attention to safety turn you off. Being prepared will make you feel more comfortable and in charge.

Medically reviewed by: Sarah K. Romero, MD
Date reviewed: May 2019