ESD Or Drowning?

Whichever it is, don’t jump into the water!

By Beth Leonard
Published: July 2014

Photo of a jetski rescue on a lake
Photo: USMC via Wikimedia Commons

So you're standing on a dock, and you see someone struggling in the water. Is the person drowning? Or suffering from Electric Shock Drowning (ESD)? We all know what drowning is — a swimmer gets water into his or her lungs, has difficulty breathing, and cannot stay afloat. ESD occurs when very small amounts of alternating current (AC) in fresh water cause a swimmer to suffer paralysis or even electrocution. Awareness of ESD has been increasing, but too many people who spend time around fresh water haven't yet heard of it.

How Do You Tell The Difference?

When someone is drowning, they usually lack the lung capacity to speak, let alone yell, and their actions become entirely reflexive. Drowning victims typically move their arms as though climbing a ladder, take quick gulps of air, and then slip underwater. Their mouth is just below water level much of the time. The struggle is quiet, and often looks "playful." This behavior lasts about 60 seconds with an adult — and only 20 seconds with a child — before the victim disappears beneath the surface. If you have any doubts about whether someone in the water is in trouble, ask if they’re OK. If they can’t answer, they need your help immediately.

A victim experiencing ESD will feel numbness, tingling, pain, and paralysis, and they may be shouting. They look distressed, not playful. At the extreme, if electrocution occurs, the victim may simply roll onto his or her back or face and be totally unresponsive.

Typical Behaviors Exhibited By Victims
DrowningESDElectrocution
Source: WebMD.com, interviews with ESD witnesses
Victim cannot speak or shoutVictim will feel tingling, numbness, pain, paralysisVictim may be able to
scream once
Reflexive "ladder climbing"Initially, victim may be able
to shout
Sudden cessation of
all activity
Looks "playful"Looks distressed and
not playful
If wearing flotation, may roll on back with face out of the water and be unresponsive
Lasts 60 seconds with an adult and as little as 20 seconds with a childMay turn into drowning behavior once victim begins to get water in lungsIf not wearing flotation, will likely roll onto face

What Should You Do?

No matter what is causing the problem, don't jump into the water to try to save the victim. Only professionally trained lifeguards can deal with a drowning person without putting themselves in danger. And if the problem is ESD, going into the water could kill you. In either situation, call 911. Then you should "reach, throw, row, but don't go." Use an oar or boathook to pull the victim to you, throw flotation to the victim if he or she is still responsive, or get into a boat and try to reach the person from there. Once you have retrieved the victim, check for a heartbeat. If you cannot detect one, use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) if one is available. Make sure the victim's chest is dry first. Maintain CPR until emergency personnel arrive.

For More Information

The BoatUS ESD Resource Center has much more information on ESD, including an introduction to what it is and how it happens, guidance on how to test your boat or your dock, and more information on dealing with victims.End of story marker

 

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