Lifeguards: Don’t Let Breath-Holding Games Turn Deadly

Breath-holding games

As kids and maybe even grown-ups, many of us challenged our friends and family members to breath-holding competitions in both the shallow and deep ends of the pool. But recent research, along with recent tragedies, reveal that these seemingly fun and innocent games can lead to a silent killer known as hypoxic blackout. Here’s what you need to know to prevent hypoxic blackout on your watch:

What is hypoxic blackout?
Hypoxic blackout refers to voluntary hyperventilation preceding underwater swimming and extended breath-holding. It occurs when the body is deprived of adequate oxygen levels, leading to a potentially fatal state of hypoxia.

Hypoxic blackout differs from a similar situation known as shallow water blackout (SWB). However, as the American Red Cross and YMCA of the USA point out in a joint press release, many people confuse the two conditions. How do they differ?

While hypoxic blackout can happen in any depth of water, SWB occurs in water less than 15 feet deep, typically as a result of failed scuba diving equipment or a free diver running out of air while returning to the surface.

Who is at risk?
Recreational swimmers are most at risk — kids and adults who compete against their friends in breath-holding contests, or who try to swim for long distances underwater without taking a breath.

But hypoxic blackout can happen to anyone, even among top-level swimmers. Why? These swimmers are actually purposely holding their breath for a long time underwater in an effort to improve their fitness and lung capacity. It’s important to note that underwater training activities should only be practiced under careful supervision and in a training specific setting, not during free swim at the community pool.

What should lifeguards be looking for?
In a community pool, you’ll need to be on the lookout for a few risky behaviors that put swimmers in danger of hypoxic blackout. First, watch for any breath-holding competitions, since ignoring the urge to breathe can lead to hypoxia. Similarly, if you see swimmers having underwater swimming competitions to see who can swim the farthest without breathing, put a stop to it. These competitions can become dangerous very quickly and without the swimmer even realizing that anything is wrong. Lastly, a swimmer who hyperventilates before going back underwater is at higher risk of hypoxic blackout, so be aware of swimmers using improper breathing techniques that may put them at risk.

While breath-holding contests may seem like fun games, this activity can easily become deadly if hypoxia occurs and you don’t notice right away and perform a rescue. Compounding the problem is that a victim of hypoxic blackout is hard to identify underwater, even if you’re scanning effectively. That means your margin for error is extremely small for finding a victim and performing a rescue in time to save a life. As a lifeguard, you must be vigilant about prohibiting breath-holding games in the pool.

At American Pool, we offer a broad range of lifeguard training programs that keep you updated on the latest in pool safety and prepare you well for the demands of the job. Browse our options and register for training.

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