A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Water safety in lakes, rivers and streams

Two boys playing on a river bank - River and stream safety

Check water depth and look for underwater hazards before swimming in a lake, river or stream.

Every summer families flock to lakes, rivers and streams for fun in the water.

Everyone is wearing life jackets. You’re watching your kids like a hawk. What could go wrong?

No matter how careful you are, you need to know natural waterways present different risks than pools.

Tried and true advice is to check your surroundings for hazards before you get in the water and always tell a friend or family member you’ll be out on the water, where you’re going and what time you’ll return.

Common dangers in lakes, rivers and streams

The American Red Cross recommends checking for these potential dangers before swimming:

1. Underwater hazards. Enter water carefully, especially if you can’t see the bottom. You may find sharp stones, debris, slippery rocks or weeds that can entangle your limbs.

Consider wearing special water shoes to protect your feet and prevent slipping.

2. Water depth. You can be severely injured jumping or diving into water of unknown depth. Don’t dive unless you know the water is more than nine feet deep and has no underwater obstacles.

Shallow water can quickly drop off into deeper water and take even strong swimmers by surprise.

3. Fast-moving water. Currents, waves and rapids can sweep you away or pull you underwater without warning, even in shallow water. Water that appears calm on the surface may be turbulent below.

Ask a park ranger or someone familiar with the area about water conditions. Wear a life jacket and swim in a calm area.

4. Boaters. Be aware of other people’s activity on the water, especially boating. Swim in areas without boat traffic, like a designated swimming area at a public beach. When swimming near your own boat, make sure the engine is off before you enter the water. Never swim under a boat.

5. Changing weather. Check the weather before you head for the water. Leave the water immediately if you see thunder or lightning and head to shelter indoors or in your car. If you can’t get indoors, avoid open areas, isolated tall trees and metal objects.

Carry warm, dry clothing for each family to member to change into if the temperature suddenly drops.

6. Contaminated water. Water can become contaminated by sewage, animal waste and runoff. Avoid swimming in natural waterways after heavy rainfalls or if your local health department has issued a water quality warning. Don’t swallow water while you’re swimming.

Contact your doctor if you experience eye or ear problems, sore throat, diarrhea, trouble breathing or rash after swimming.

Know how to handle emergencies

If someone is in trouble in the water, call 911. Keep yourself safe by wearing a life jacket when you’re helping others.

Try to reach for the person using an object to extend your reach. Brace yourself so you don’t fall in. Throw a floating object to someone who is out of reach. Try to find something with a rope attached to pull the person to safety.

If water is shallow and calm, wade into the water and reach toward the person with an object to pull them to safety. Don’t enter water with strong currents or waves.

Be safe on the water:  Simple steps to ensure proper life jacket fit

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