US drowning deaths on the rise after years in decline, CDC says

Drowning is the number one cause of death for U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 4. And despite having been on the decline for decades, such deaths have increased in recent years, according to U.S. officials. 

More than 4,500 people drowned each year in the U.S. between 2020 and 2022, which was about 500 more drowning deaths each year compared to 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said

There was a 28% spike among kids ages 1 to 4 in 2022 compared to 2019, and adults over age 65 had the second-highest rate of drowning, increasing by 19%, the CDC said.

American Indian or Alaska Native people had higher drowning rates than any other race and ethnic group, although there has been no observed spike in recent years. 

Black people had the second-highest drowning rates, and the figure increased 28% in 2021 compared to 2019, the agency said.

What's causing the spike in US drowning deaths?

FILE - Swimmers and sunbathers use a public pool at a park in Queens, New York, on August 12, 2021. (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

FILE - Swimmers and sunbathers use a public pool at a park in Queens, New York, on August 12, 2021. (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

In its report published last week, the CDC suggested several issues that may have contributed to the spike in U.S. drowning deaths in recent years. 

During the pandemic, many public pools closed and limited the availability of swimming lessons, the agency noted. 

"Once pools reopened, many facilities faced shortages of trained swimming instructors and lifeguards. This has further reduced access to swimming lessons," the report states.

Other reported barriers include swimming lessons being too expensive or not accessible, a fear of water, the pool setting not feeling welcoming, and many who report feeling uncomfortable wearing traditional swimwear, according to the CDC. 

The agency noted how some of these issues can be particularly prevalent among certain races and ethnic groups. 

"Many Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native people report lack of access to pools as a barrier to swimming lessons," the report states. "Racial segregation led to few options and many of the available pools were often poorly maintained or too shallow for swimming. Many public pools closed after racial desegregation and communities built fewer new pools over the decades." 

"The legacy of this and other discrimination may influence current generations’ attitudes about and participation in swimming lessons," the CDC added.

40 million adults don’t know how to swim

Basic swimming and water safety skills are a proven, effective way to prevent drowning – but millions of adults lack such abilities.

More than 1 in 3 Black adults (37%) reported not knowing how to swim, compared to 15% of all adults, the CDC said.

About 2 in 3 Black adults (63%) reported having never taken a swimming lesson, and about 3 in 4 Hispanic adults (72%) say they’ve never taken a lesson.

How to prevent drowning

Drowning happens in seconds, is often silent, and can happen to anyone whenever there is access to water, the CDC stresses. 

For everyone, the agency suggests several things to prevent drowning:

  • Learn basic swimming and water safety skills
  • Build fences that fully enclose pools
  • Supervise closely
  • Wear a life jacket
  • Learn CPR
  • Know the risks of natural waters, like dangerous currents or waves, rocks or vegetation, and limited visibility
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Always swim with a buddy
  • Take additional precautions for medical conditions, such as those with a seizure disorder like epilepsy
  • Consider the effects of medications that impair balance, coordination, or judgment
  • Don't hyperventilate or hold your breath for a long time

This story was reported from Cincinnati.