Drowning deaths in US on the rise for the 1st time in decades

Picture of three children (a girl on the left-hand side and two boys on her right) sitting by the edge of a swimming pool. The boy who is furthest on the right-hand side has his head turned back and is looking into the distance.
Lower access to supervised swimming during the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated people's risk of drowning, the CDC reported. (Image credit: kali9 via Getty Images)

Annual deaths from drowning in the U.S. have increased for the first time in decades, new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals. 

More than 4,500 people died due to unintentional drowning each year between 2020 and 2022 — an increase from 2019, when about 4,000 people died from drowning. The biggest increase in deaths occurred in groups who were already at a higher risk of drowning; these include children below age 4 and adults over 65 of all races and ethnicities, as well as Black people of all ages. 

Broken down by age group, the highest overall drowning rates occurred among children between 1 and 4 years old. Drowning is the leading cause of death in that age group. By race and ethnicity, the highest rates were seen among Black and Native American or Alaska Native people. 

The recent surge in deaths may be tied to disruptions to infrastructure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers suggested in a report published online on May 14. Namely, access to lifeguards, swimming lessons and supervised swimming settings decreased as people spent more free time in or near water, they said.  

"I've seen firsthand the effects of drowning: families forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon," Dr. Debra Houry, chief medical officer for the CDC, said in a statement. "Understanding the barriers people face to accessing basic swimming and water safety skills training can help us better understand how to address those barriers, decrease drowning rates, and save lives."

Related: COVID pandemic knocked 1.6 years off global life expectancy, study finds

To get the new figures, the researchers analyzed data from the National Vital Statistics System, which contains the most complete record of U.S. deaths and their causes. For the new report, CDC researchers compared the unintentional drowning death rates reported in 2019, before the pandemic began, with those recorded in 2020, 2021 and 2022. 

Compared with 2019, children ages 1 to 4 saw a roughly 28% jump in drowning deaths in 2021 and 2022, the researchers found. Adults ages 65 and older had the second-highest drowning rate in all the years and also experienced significant upticks compared to 2019. For instance, people ages 65 to 74 years old were 19% more likely to drown in 2022 than in 2019, and those over age 85 had a nearly 50% higher chance of drowning in 2021 than 2019. 

People ages 15 to 34 experienced the biggest surge in drowning deaths between 2019 and 2020. Based on prior data, the researchers suspect alcohol use may have factored into this uptick, although alcohol use wasn't specifically accounted for in the new study.

Drowning rates among Native American or Alaska Native people didn't increase between 2020 and 2022, but these individuals were still more likely to drown than any other race or ethnicity, as has been seen in past reports, the CDC found. The second-highest drowning rates by race were among Black people — with a 28% increase in 2021 compared with 2019. 

The CDC also assessed people's swimming ability with a national survey. The agency estimates that around 40 million U.S. adults don't know how to swim, based on 15.4% of survey respondents saying they didn't know how to do so. More than 50% of respondents said they have never taken a swimming lesson. 

Social and structural barriers still limit people's access to training in swimming and water safety, the CDC wrote in the report. This lack of access reflects disparities in drowning rates — for example, more Black adults than white adults report not knowing how to swim or having never taken a swimming lesson. Addressing these barriers could help reduce drowning rates, the CDC said. 

In the meantime, the agency recommended several ways in which people can protect themselves and their loved ones from drowning, such as installing four-sided pool fencing, ensuring that children are always supervised while in the water and using life jackets while boating. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.

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Emily Cooke
Staff Writer

Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (emily.cooke@futurenet.com