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07-14 Drinking, drugging and drowning: Swimming sober is safer

Drinking, drugging and drowning: Swimming sober is safer

One minute, Pauly was drinking and showing off with his friends, and then his head struck the bottom of the pool so hard that his neck snapped back. He couldn’t move or swim to the surface and thought he was going to drown, and then he lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was on a ventilator in the hospital. Unable to speak or move from the neck down, Pauly could only blink his eyes. This was his new reality.

Pauly’s story is quite common. Approximately 11,000 spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur in the U.S. each year, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Diving is the fourth leading cause of SCI in males and the fifth in females. The majority of these accidents occur in males, many of whom have been drinking and/or using drugs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3,536 fatal drownings occur each year in the U.S., not including boating-related accidents or nonfatal drownings. Risk factors for drowning are similar to other water-related accidents, except that 1- to 4-year-olds are also at risk.

Shallow-water spinal injuries, head trauma, trauma from boating accidents, water sports injuries and drowning are the most common water-related injuries in the U.S. Spinal injuries, head trauma, and near-drowning accidents often leave victims with severe functional loss, frequently either paralyzed or in a permanently vegetative state.

Risk factors for water-related accidents:

  • Children 1 to 4 years of age, adolescents and young adults
  • Male gender
  • African American ethnicity
  • Alcohol use present in 30 to 70 percent of cases
  • Summer months

Swimming becomes unsafe if any amount of alcohol is consumed. Alcohol lowers conscientiousness and increases risk-taking behavior. Degree of impairment is often underestimated by the person who is drinking. In addition, the full effects of the alcohol may not be felt until the person is out in open water. Alcohol decreases strength and stamina for swimming, particularly against a current. Alcohol also lowers body temperature, putting swimmers who drink at risk for developing hypothermia.

Certain drugs can also hamper psychomotor and cognitive function, putting users at risk for water-related accidents. Drugs have been detected in the bodies of unintentional drowning victims. Prescription medications and illicit drugs can also interact with alcohol, thereby increasing the effects and level of impairment.

Although these injuries are usually devastating, they are preventable. Avoiding pool and beach parties where alcohol is served is wise. Teens in recovery can plan group activities together that do not include drugs or alcohol. Staying sober and following standard swim safety tips can help prevent a tragedy.

About us

Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is a leader in the treatment of adolescent mental illness, substance use and co-occurring disorders. Our programs integrate state-of-the-art neurocognitive treatments with alternative approaches like experiential therapies, while promoting healthy lifestyle habits and lasting recovery. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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