Staying safe in and around water

The Bottom Line

  • Drowning is a leading cause of death in Canada. 
  • 1/3 of people who drowned in Canada between 2007 and 2016 had a pre-existing medical condition, and in almost half of the cases, that condition directly contributed to the drowning. 
  • People with seizure disorders are at greater risk of drowning, such as in their bathtub.

Drowning is responsible for over 400 deaths in Canada annually. Deaths can occur while bathing, while boating, during a recreational water activity or even as a result of an accidental fall into the water. The Canadian Red Cross reports that accidental falls account for nearly 1 in 5 drownings in Canada.(1) People with balance problems or who have mobility issues should be especially careful when walking near water.

Swimming and water fitness are often encouraged to promote health for people with chronic conditions. However, researchers have found that people with certain pre-existing medical conditions have an increased risk of drowning. With 4 out of 10 Canadian adults suffering from at least one chronic disease, appropriate precautions must be taken to ensure their safety when engaging in water activities.


Let's dig deeper to see what we can learn from Canadian data.

What the research tells us

A recent study examined all unintentional drownings between 2007 and 2016 in the Drowning Prevention Research Centre Canada database.(2) Findings revealed that :

- one-third of the 4,288 people who drowned during that time period had a pre-existing medical condition, and that condition contributed to the drowning in nearly half of the cases;

- drowning was more common among people with heart disease and seizure disorders, but less common among people with respiratory diseases

- people with heart disease, respiratory disease and physical disabilities drowned most often in lakes and ponds; and

- people with seizures or neurocognitive disorders drowned most often in bathtubs. 

How can drowning be prevented?

Individualized interventions to prevent drowning based on medical conditions and age are needed (3; 4):

 If you have a seizure disorder, take a shower rather than a bath and have someone you trust stay nearby. Be sure to follow the prescribed dosage of your anti-epileptic medication.

If you have cardiovascular disease, you do not have to avoid water activities. Several studies have shown that these activities for exercise and rehabilitation purposes are beneficial to your health and quality of life. However, consult your physician before engaging in any aquatic activity and gradually increase the intensity of your efforts.

In all cases:

- Participate in aquatic activities in pools supervised by trained lifeguards.

- Have someone you trust accompany you (buddy system) when you are on or near the water.

- Always wear a properly fitted lifejacket in open water and on a boat. 

- Do not consume alcohol before or during your aquatic activities. 

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Author Details


  1. Canadian Red Cross. Research on drowning. Accessed on 18 May 2022.
  2. Dunne CL, Sweet J, Clemens T. The link between medical conditions and fatal drownings in Canada: a 10-year cross-sectional analysis. CMAJ. 2022 May 9;194(18):E637-E644. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.211739. PMID: 35534027.
  3. Canadian Red. Swimming and water safety tips & resources. Accessed on 18 May 2022.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning prevention. Accessed on 18 May 2022.

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