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Holding your breath underwater can lead to death, advocates warn

Underwater breath-holding challenges can cause drownings

As the weather warms up and community pools begin to open for the summer, national advocates are warning about a little-known danger for swimmers.
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As the weather warms up and community pools begin to open for the summer, national advocates are warning about a little-known danger for swimmers.

As the weather warms up and community pools begin to open for the summer, national advocates are warning about a little-known danger for swimmers.

Shallow water blackout syndrome occurs when someone holds his or her breath for too long underwater and loses consciousness. Unable to come up for air, the victim takes a breath and inhales water, causing him or her to drown.

Although there’s no way to determine if a drowning was caused by shallow water blackout syndrome, it’s easy to tell when the signs point to it, said Rhonda Milner, founder of Shallow Water Blackout Prevention. Milner lost her son six years ago to shallow water blackout syndrome.

“This is happening more often that what people realize,” Milner said. “It’s not a regular accident. This is something completely preventable. People are taking their own life unintentionally.”

Drowning is listed as the cause of death in almost all of these cases, but Milner said what caused the drowning often isn’t discovered. Many times, the victim is a strong swimmer, leaving family baffled by their death. But Milner said that’s a giveaway for shallow water blackout syndrome.

Signs point to shallow water blackout syndrome being a potential culprit in the case of a 12-year-old who drowned at the Fairview Heights Drury Inn in mid-May. Renard S. Lewis, from Jacksonville, Fla., was in town with his family for a high school graduation. His family said he was a strong swimmer, which is why it was so surprising when he drowned. But at the time of his death, Lewis was holding his breath, trying to see how long he could stay under water for.

Games like that are dangerous, Milner said, and she cautioned against them. Even diving for rings at the bottom of the pool can be dangerous, Milner said, because a swimmer is going up and down quickly and may be hyperventilating.

“Breath holding is not a game,” Milner said. “It can be very dangerous.”

But this doesn’t just impact kids at community pools. Competitive swimmers can fall victim as well. Olympic swim coach Bob Bowman lost an athlete from the syndrome in 2012, and two Navy seals died from breath-holding exercises in 2015.

The scary part is, a victim may not even realize they desperately need more oxygen until it’s too late. Hyperventilating, either consciously or due to overexertion, lowers carbon dioxide levels, according to Shallow Water Blackout Prevention. As a swimmer holds their breath, carbon dioxide levels increase, and the body becomes oxygen deprived. Normally, too much carbon dioxide would trigger a breath. But because carbon dioxide levels were low to begin with, due to hyperventilation, the body can’t initiate a breath, so the swimmer loses consciousness and drowns, unless a bystander notices and can rescue them in time.

Milner urges swimmers to never ignore the urge to breath, to make sure to never swim alone and to not hyperventilate before going underwater. She wants pool signage for the general public, in order to better raise awareness about shallow water blackout syndrome.

The best way to get people to stop holding their breath, she said, is to tell them why they shouldn’t be doing it, and what could happen if they do.

To find out more about shallow water blackout prevention, visit Shallow Water Blackout Prevention’s website.

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