Practicing checking for signs of life before CPR during a St John Ambulance Cymru first aid at work training course

How to Perform First Aid on a Drowning Adult

Drowning is when someone has difficulty breathing because their nose and mouth are submerged in a liquid. When someone's drowning, it may not always look like the distressed call for help that most people expect from watching TV. They may go unnoticed, even if friends or family are nearby. 

We've updated our guidance due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Do not perform rescue breaths on the casualty. 


What to do 

When helping an adult please follow the steps below. There is separate advice for how to help a child who is drowning.

Step 1 

Do not put yourself in danger when trying to rescue a casualty. 

Step 2 

When the casualty is rescued  from the water, you should first perform a primary survey. If this establishes that they are unresponsive and not breathing, you should ask a helper to call 999 or 112 for emergency help while you start CPR. Ask a helper to find and bring a defibrillator, if available. 

  • if you are on your own, use the hands-free speaker on a  phone so you can start CPR while speaking to ambulance control
  • do not leave the casualty to look for a defibrillator yourself, the ambulance will bring one.
Step 3

Start performing chest compressions. Kneel by the casualty and put the heel of your hand in the middle of their chest. Put your other hand on top of the first. Interlock your fingers making sure they don't touch the ribs. Keep your arms straight and lean over the casualty. Press down hard, to a depth of about 5-6cm before releasing the pressure, allowing the chest to come back up (this is one compression).  

  • Do this at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute. 
  • the beat of the song ‘Staying Alive’ can help you keep the right rate 
  • do not give rescue breaths. 
 Step 4

Continue to perform CPR until:   

  • emergency help arrives and takes over   
  • the person starts showing signs of life and starts to breathe normally 
  • you are too exhausted to continue (if there is a helper, you can change over every one-to-two minutes, with minimal interruptions to chest compressions) 
  • or a defibrillator is ready to be used (if the helper returns with a defibrillator, ask them to switch it on and follow the voice prompts while you continue with CPR).
Step 5 

Beware, many casualties that drown may bring up stomach contents, so be prepared to roll them onto their side to clear their airway. 

Step 6 

If the casualty shows signs of becoming responsive such as coughing, opening eyes, speaking, and starts to breathe normally, put them in the recovery position. You may also need to treat them for hypothermia covering them with warm clothes and blankets. If possible, replace the wet clothes with dry clothes. 

Step 7 

Monitor the casualty's level of response and prepare to give CPR again if necessary. 


This guidance has been adjusted for Covid-19 so may not be what you have previously learned or are used to.

Looking for other ways to get involved?

Whatever you enjoy doing and however much time you can commit, there’s a volunteer role for you.

Donate Volunteer