Summer Safety: 8 Reasons Kids End Up in the ER—and How to Prevent It

Drowning and other accidents spike when school is out, earning the summer the moniker "trauma season."

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Summer has arrived. And for all its pleasant, warm-weather pastimes—pool parties, barbeques, bicycling, and more—an emergency department near you is feeling the usual seasonal spike in children's unintended injuries and deaths. No wonder summer is known in the medical business as "trauma season." This time of year, when schools are out, time is free, and temperatures sizzle, is chock-full of kids' summer fun gone wrong. Just ask any ER nurse or doctor, and he or she will rattle off a list of typical mishaps that bring families into their care right around now.

Childhood deaths from unintentional injuries, reassuringly, are rare. But add up the pain of broken bones (plus the angst of a childhood summer spent in a cast), parents' time taken off from work to nurse an injured kid, medical bills—not to mention the use of ER resources—and the possibility of a lasting disability from, say, a brain injury sustained in a bicycle accident, and you've got a costly impact on families and society. Because of unintentional injuries, U.S. children age 14 and under made more than 2.4 million emergency room visits in the summer of 2004, the latest summer for which data are available. Those injuries resulted in 2,143 deaths, according to a report by Safe Kids Worldwide.

There are distinct patterns to summer accidents, and many could be easily prevented. Marie Lozon, division director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, tends not only to the young patients who are rushed through the doors of her emergency department but also to shocked parents. "Every day I hear, 'I just turned my back for a second,' " she says. A brief lapse in supervision is often a critical factor in kids' visits to the ER during trauma season.

Between conversations with Lozon and another expert, Chrissy Cianflone, director of program operations at Safe Kids USA, U.S. News has compiled a list of some common trauma-season causes of unintentional injury to kids—and simple ways to avert such disasters.

Drowning. Lack of adult supervision and drowning go hand in hand. In summer, kids drown at nearly twice the rate that's typical for the rest of the year—reflecting a steeper summertime increase than exists for any other kind of unintentional injury to kids. Drowning deaths among young people are still relatively rare—1.42 per 100,000 person-years. Between 2000 and 2005, there were 6,900 non-boat-related unintentional drowning deaths between 2000 and 2005 of people younger than 20 nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drowning is "not like in the movies," says Cianflone. There is no wild flailing and commotion. "The child will simply just slide into the water, very silently and very quickly," she explains. In a pool setting, for example, an adult might suddenly notice a child at the bottom of the pool and have no idea how long he or she has been there. Resuscitation may be possible, but often serious damage has already been done. "You can get them back from a cardiac standpoint," explains Lozon, as children typically have resilient cardiovascular systems, "but they will have severe neurologic damage."

The most basic, common-sense advice to prevent children from drowning is to have an adult watching the water at all times. Sounds obvious, like something any parent would do instinctively, but Cianflone says a kid drowning is usually "a matter of everybody was watching, but nobody was watching." The solution, she says: Having a designated adult with his or her eyes on the water at all times and the ability to jump in quickly. "That adult's primary job is to focus on the children in the water, not sitting on a lounge chair reading a book and eating," she adds. And lifeguards aren't a universal remedy, adds Cianflone, noting she's had calls from parents whose child drowned with a lifeguard on duty.

What about swimming lessons? "Parents often think this is the magical answer," says Lozon. She acknowledges that kids who get swimming lessons may have more competence in the water and might not panic, buying them some time in a dicey situation, like when a crush of kids are bunched together in the water or when fatigue sets in. But parents shouldn't overestimate the protective value of swimming lessons. Particularly with younger kids, she says, "swimming lessons are fantastic, but it's not a panacea for supervision."