Emergency advice

Drowning adult:

  1. Call 999
  2. Perform chest compressions to the time of "Staying Alive". Do not give rescue breaths
  3. Continue compressions until help arrives
  4. If responsive treat for hypothermia.

What is drowning?

Drowning is when someone has difficulty breathing because their nose and mouth are submerged in a liquid. When someone's drowning, it may not always look like the distressed call for help that most people expect from watching TV. They may go unnoticed, even if friends or family are nearby.

What to do

  1. Do not put yourself in danger when trying to rescue a casualty.

  2. When the casualty is rescued from the water, you should first perform a primary survey. If this establishes that they are unresponsive and not breathing, you should ask a helper to call 999 or 112 for emergency help while you start CPR. Ask a helper to find and bring a defibrillator, if available.

    • If you are on your own, use the hands-free speaker on a phone so you can start CPR while speaking to ambulance control
    • Do not leave the casualty to look for a defibrillator yourself, the ambulance will bring one
  3. Check the airway is open before giving five intial rescue breaths. This is done by placing one hand on the forehead and two fingers (of your other hand) underneath the tip of the chin. Using the hand on the forehead, pinch the casualty's nose with your finger and thumb, allowing the casualty's mouth to fall open. Take a breath and place your lips around the casualty's mouth, forming a seal. Blow into the casualty's mouth until the chest rises. 

    Follow by beginning chest compressions. Kneel by the casualty and put the heel of your hand in the middle of their chest. Put your other hand on top of the first. Interlock your fingers making sure they don't touch the ribs. Keep your arms straight and lean over the casualty. Press down hard, to a third of the depth of the chest, then allow the chest to come back up. 

    After 30 chest compressions, give two rescue breaths. Repeat this at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute.

    • The beat of the song ‘Staying Alive’ can help you keep the right rate
  4. Continue to perform CPR until:  

    • emergency help arrives and takes over  
    • the person starts showing signs of life and starts to breathe normally
    • you are too exhausted to continue (if there is a helper, you can change over every one-to-two minutes, with minimal interruptions to chest compressions)
    • or a defibrillator is ready to be used (if the helper returns with a defibrillator, ask them to switch it on and follow the voice prompts while you continue with CPR).
  5. Beware, many casualties that drown may bring up stomach contents, so be prepared to roll them onto their side to clear their airway.

  6. If the casualty shows signs of becoming responsive such as coughing, opening eyes, speaking, and starts to breathe normally, put them in the recovery position. You may also need to treat them for hypothermia covering them with warm clothes and blankets. If possible, replace the wet clothes with dry clothes.

  7. Monitor the casualty's level of response and prepare to give CPR again if necessary.

    • If you have used a defibrillator, leave it attached.

    People who have experienced near-drowning (i.e. they have been successfully rescued, with or without the need for resuscitation) may need to be observed for a short period in hospital and medical advice should be sought, even if they appear well in the immediate aftermath.

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Related first aid advice

How to do the primary survey

Use the primary survey to quickly assess the situation and check the casualty for injuries or conditions that could be immediately life threatening. Find out what to do.

How to do CPR on an adult

If an adult is unresponsive and not breathing normally, you need to call 999 or 112 for emergency help and start CPR straight away. Learn what to do.


Hypothermia can become life-threatening quickly, so it’s important to treat someone with hypothermia straight away.  Find out what to look for and what to do.

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