Water beckons people of all ages during the summer, but safety should come first, whether your family prefers to just dip in a toe or to dive into the deep end.
“Because we are surrounded by water, people can underestimate the risks,” said Thomas Morrison, M.D., medical director of the emergency departments at Mariners and Fishermen’s Community hospitals in the Florida Keys.
A South Florida native, Dr. Morrison understands the lure of water activities, especially as temperatures rise. But he also has seen enough injuries and accidents to urge caution. “Every single time you are in the water or near the water, you need to ask yourself, ‘Where am I? What do I need to do to make sure I and everyone around me is safe?”
Here are some safety guidelines to keep in mind.
- Keep kids close. Children of all ages need constant adult supervision around water — whether the water is in a bathtub, wading pool, ornamental fish pond, backyard pool or beach. Don’t entrust a child’s life to another child, even an older sibling. At parties, designate an adult responsible for watching the children. If your child is missing, search the pool or areas with water first, as every second counts. Younger children may be at the greatest risk of drowning, but don’t dismiss the danger to ‘tweens and teens.
- Make a good entrance. Diving into unknown waters can be disastrous, whether from a bridge, boat, poolside or shoreline. “That’s how head, neck and spine injuries happen,” Dr. Morrison said. The consequences can range from paralysis to death. “It can be difficult to estimate water depth or to see hidden objects under water in the natural environment,” he said. “The rule with any body of water is to enter feet-first until you know what you are dealing with.”
- Be discriminating. Although it may look refreshing, some water can make you sick. “With any body of water, there is something living in there — and it starts with bacteria,” Dr. Morrison said. Contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. Interactive fountains, for example, may not contain enough chlorine to keep from spreading illnesses. At public pools and water parks, the water may be treated, but it takes time for chemicals to kill all germs. Natural bodies of water may be compromised by animal waste, algae blooms, runoff and sewage spills. If you’re not sure of the quality of the water, take precautions. Teach children to keep their mouth closed and never to swallow water while swimming. And keep them away from puddles and standing water. Although it may seem like innocent fun to splash around after a rainstorm, standing water can expose children to water-borne illnesses and infections, chemical exposure, drowning and electrical shock, says Fernando Mendoza, M.D., medical director of the Children’s Emergency Center at Baptist Children’s Hospital and associate medical director of Pediatric Emergency Services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.
- Know your equipment. The most common water injuries Dr. Morrison sees are related to personal watercrafts, also known as Jet Skis. That’s because inexperienced people who rent these machines don’t realize they have no brakes. Speed and momentum extend the stopping distance and turning radius, leading to crashes and collisions. “We’ve seen deaths and tons of injuries,” Dr. Morrison said. “Be aware of what your vehicle can do and how to operate it safely.”
- Wear your life jacket. Life jackets do little good if they are stored away. Many accidents involve unexpected crashes, not slowly sinking vessels, and you may not have time to grab safety equipment. This is particularly true if you are out on the water alone, such as paddling a kayak. For comfort, Dr. Morrison suggests inflatable life jackets that deploy automatically if you hit the water — protecting you even if you’re unconscious. “It’s not about whether you fall overboard. It’s more about what you might hit on your way into the water,” he explained. Children and even pets should wear life jackets at all times.
- Check with your doctor. If you have any kind of health concerns, especially a cardiac condition, check with your doctor before engaging in water activities. You may think that spending the day on the water is relaxing, but some activities such as snorkeling can be far more taxing than most people realize, Dr. Morrison said. “We see approximately eight deaths a year from cardiac arrest while snorkeling,” he said. “Many people perceive snorkeling to be mild activity when in fact it is often equivalent to a stress test.” Be sure you’re in appropriate shape for whatever outing you’re planning. And when you get tired, take a rest.
- Think before you drink. Alcohol affects judgment, vision, balance and coordination — and its effects are magnified when you’re out in the heat and sun due to dehydration. As a result, alcohol is a top factor in boating accidents and adult drownings. If you choose to drink, Dr. Morrison recommends consuming twice as much water as any alcoholic beverage to dilute the effects. While consumption can be a bad idea for anyone on a boat, it is out of the question for the operator. Assign a designated driver who won’t drink, as you would with a car.
- Beware of wildlife. Recent Florida tragedies in which people were attacked by alligators should make you pause around ponds, lakes and other bodies of water. Think twice before entering or even walking close to the edge of water that may serve as an animal’s home. Gators not only good at camouflage, they are fast.
- Set rules. Children should know from a very young age never to go near water without the supervision of a grown-up. Discourage rough play and contests in which kids hold their breath under water. And make sure older kids know to avoid unguarded areas not designated for swimming, no matter how tempting that cool canal or remote beach looks.
- Trust your instincts. When you’re around water, listen to the little voice in your head that causes you to question if something is safe. “I can’t tell you how many injuries I see where the person tells me, ‘As I was doing this, I had a feeling it was a bad idea,’ or ‘I knew I shouldn’t have done that,’” Dr. Morrison said. “Think things through. Be aware of risks.”