Heading to a pool this weekend? Consider pool safety, sunscreen

Brigitte Decato, a swim instructor with the Swim Safe program at the YMCA, works with Octavio Ruiz, 5, (center) on the backstroke. 2007  Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN
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Brigitte Decato, a swim instructor with the Swim Safe program at the YMCA, works with Octavio Ruiz, 5, (center) on the backstroke. 2007 Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Brigitte Decato, a swim instructor with the Swim Safe program at the YMCA, works with Octavio Ruiz, 5, (center) on the backstroke. 2007  Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Brigitte Decato, a swim instructor with the Swim Safe program at the YMCA, works with Octavio Ruiz, 5, (center) on the backstroke. 2007 Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Today, the American-Statesman published a report on how safe our local pools are. Read that here.

Don’t forget that even if the pool is safe, water can be a very unsafe place. Keep these things in mind when you head to the pool, lake or beach this weekend.

Before you dip your toes into whatever body of water you choose, practice these rules for water safety we compiled using experts from the YMCA, City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, Colin’s Hope, Safe Kids Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What does drowning look like?

Unlike what we see in the movies, “drowning is a silent thing. There’s no splashing, yelling or choking,” says Stephanie Hebert, the injury prevention coordinator at Dell Children’s Medical Center and the Safe Kids Austin coordinator. “They go under and when they are under, you don’t hear them, you don’t see anything.”

Drowning also doesn’t take long. Irreversible brain damage happens in as little as four minutes. Children who drown are usually missing for less than five minutes and usually are in the presence of at least one parent.

For children younger than 15, it’s the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths, behind motor vehicle accidents. Children younger than 5 are more at risk. Boys also are more susceptible because they tend to take more risks.

It can happen anywhere. Pools with lifeguards, natural bodies of water, bathtubs and toilets.

As of mid-May this year, 16 children already have drowned in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

It’s also preventable, so let’s focus on that.

Watch the water

The No. 1 thing parents can do to prevent a child from drowning is supervise their children.

For young children, that means getting in the water and having hands-on contact or being within arm’s length.

For older children, that means watching them in the water at all times. Reading a book in a lounge chair or talking to a fellow parent or texting isn’t supervising.

The Austin-based drowning prevention nonprofit group Colin’s Hope distributes 75,000 water safety packets every year that include a Water Guardian bracelet. The bracelet slips on and signifies that you are the designated adult watching the children in your group. If you need to take a break, you hand it to another adult, whose sole job is watching the water.

The City of Austin ordinance requires that kids 9 and younger have an adult with them to be in a city pool and that kids ages 10 to 14 can be by themselves if they pass a swim test, but why chance it? Supervise everyone in your group.

Vacation is also no time to let your guard down. Kids can drown in cruise ships and hotel pools.

Always have a phone nearby and learn CPR. A water safety class is also a great idea.

Good swimmers drown, too

Even kids who know how to swim can drown, says Alissa Magrum, executive director of Colin’s Hope, which was started by the parents of Colin Holst, a 4-year-old who drowned in an Austin pool in 2008. Colin had had swim lessons and was at a life-guarded pool with his family and friends watching.

“A lot of families think, ‘My kids are decent swimmers; they’ve had swim lessons, they are fine,’ ” Hebert says.

But things happen. Children accidentally swallow water. Or they hit their heads. Or they misjudge their abilities. Or they get tired or dehydrated or hungry.

Donita Grinde-Houtman, the aquatic supervisor for Austin Parks and Recreation, says lifeguards respond most often between 2 and 6 p.m. because kids get tired. “Kiddos have been at the pool all day long, they’re getting tired, and they don’t recognize that they don’t have the energy to swim as far as they need to.”

Take frequent breaks. End earlier than you think you should. Rehydrate and refuel throughout the day.

Not-so-good swimmers need more help

That doesn’t mean water wings, pool noodles and other pool toys to stay afloat. Put a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on your budding swimmer. They have to have one on for getting in a boat, so why not extend that to any body of water?

Before you go to a pool, define where the shallow end is, especially for not-so-good swimmers. One of the most common reasons lifeguards make a water rescue, says Bret Kiester, the executive director of the Hays Communities YMCA and the aquatic directors liaison for all the Austin-area YMCAs, is when kids who aren’t good swimmers find the deep end. Sometimes they’ve monkey-crawled along the side of the pool to that end; other times they’re following an older sibling or they don’t know where the deep end starts.

Lifeguards are great but not a guarantee

Be hesitant to swim in a place without a lifeguard because they add a layer of protection. However, they’re not insurance.

One lifeguard Magrum was working with put it this way: “We are not baby-sitters. We are here in an emergency.”

Lifeguards have a lot of people to watch, not just your child. Their job gets even more difficult the more people are in the pool and the less-clear the water is. They also get distracted by children horsing around (i.e. running around the pool) and other emergencies not in the pool.

Lifeguards, who go through similar training programs, are supposed to scan 180 degrees every 10 seconds from top to bottom, from right to left. If you see a lifeguard who isn’t doing that or you notice that lifeguards aren’t getting frequent breaks and rotating out, alert a supervisor.

Swim lessons

Swim lessons statistically have been shown to reduce a child’s chances of drowning, but it’s not a magic shield.

The YMCA and the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department start swim lessons as parent-and-child classes at age 6 months, old enough for a child to have good head control.

Those early classes are about familiarizing the baby with water and teaching parents good water safety with their children.

By age 3 or 4, children can take solo lessons, but if you’ve missed that age, don’t worry. “It’s never too late to learn how to swim,” Kiester says. He’s had students as old as 92 learn to swim.

Kids are grouped by age, then by ability, and there are adult classes, too — something parents who don’t know how to swim should consider in order to be able to save a child in danger.

Swim lessons are not just about learning strokes. They teach about being comfortable and water safety.

Sometimes kids will have a bad reaction to swimming lessons. It might be the time of day or it might be the coolness of the water, Grinde-Houtman says.

If your child is truly afraid of the water, Grinde-Houtman says, you might have to take a step back and start with something like sitting at the side of the pool and putting her feet in the water.

Free swim lessons are available from the Austin American-Statesman’s Swim Safe program, which provides lessons at YMCA locations and City of Austin pools.

A great time to do swim lessons is in the winter, Kiester says. They tend to be less crowded and when summer starts, kids won’t have to re-learn to be comfortable in the water again.

Natural bodies of water

Rivers, lakes, springs and oceans get tricky. The surface is uneven. “You might be wading in waist-deep water and the next step you’re in 16 feet of water,” says Clara Tuma of the LCRA.

You also can’t see the bottom to know if someone has fallen in.

It’s also hard to judge distances. People often get in trouble because they pick a point to swim to and underestimate how far it is. “They run out of energy halfway there,” Tuma says. “They can’t just stop and sit under a tree.”

Wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket allows them to rest and float if they need to.

And often people get confused as to where they are to report an emergency.

Swimming on natural bodies also means you’re not the only thing out there. Keep a look out for boats and personal water crafts that might not be able to see you.

In oceans, teach kids how to deal with rip currents that push swimmers away from the shore.

Never swim alone no matter what type of water you are in.

Keep safe at home

Each year many kids drown at home. Kids can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.

Never walk away from a young child in a bathtub, not even to answer the phone or grab a towel.

Keep locks on toilets if you have infants and toddlers. Keep plastic kiddie pools empty as well as mop buckets.

If you have a backyard pool, install a locking gate system on all four-sides of the pool. If a child goes missing, check the pool or hot tub first before looking inside the house.

Teach baby-sitters about pool safety.

Trenton Treut-Shaffer, a lifeguard at the Bastrop State Park pool, applies sunscreen as a shield during a hot Saturday afternoon. Terry Hagerty/Bastrop Advertiser 0611613 Bastrop State Park

Trenton Treut-Shaffer, a lifeguard at the Bastrop State Park pool, applies sunscreen as a shield during a hot Saturday afternoon.
Terry Hagerty/Bastrop Advertiser

Don’t forget to wear your sunscreen

A sunburnt child can make for a miserable weekend and later on for skin cancer.

Here’s our guide to keeping your family sun safe this summer:

Sunscreen and summer, the perfect pairing?

You can get burned any time of the year. We think about sunscreen in summer because people tend to be out more and around the highly reflective surfaces of the pool or other water.

Dr. Lakshmi Atkuri, a pediatrician at Scott & White Clinic — Round Rock, warns that you can get just as burned in sun as in the snow. “Cloudy days don’t matter,” she says. “About 80 percent of UV rays still get through. You still can get burned.”

Some sun is good for the body, right?

Yes, sunlight can help the body make vitamin D, but Dr. Samantha Hill, a pediatric dermatologist at Specially for Children and Dell Children’s Medical Center, says people need fewer than 10 minutes of indirect sunlight a day to get enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also found in milk and cereals or can be supplemented with vitamins if someone doesn’t have enough.

Why should you care about sunscreen?

In the past 30 years, we’ve really come to understand that exposure to the sun and skin cancer are linked.

The American Cancer Society estimates that one American dies every hour of skin cancer. This year about 76,250 new cases of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed.

One blistering sunburn as a child or in the teen years more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.

My child tans, so I don’t need to worry, right?

Wrong. It is true that people who have the following risk factors have to be more diligent: pale skin; blond, red or light brown hair; a family member who has had skin cancer; or have had skin cancer themselves.

Tanning is the skin’s natural protection against the sun, and if your natural coloring is darker, you might have more protection. That slight advantage does not outweigh the damage that can be caused, Hill says.

The UVA rays that cause the skin to tan can be just as damaging or even more damaging as UVB light, which causes skin to burn. UVB light damages the surface layers of the skin; UVA goes deeper and does more long-term damage.

“The long-term consequences of UVA light don’t distinguish between if you burn or tan,” Atkuri says.

Hill wants people to think about the difference between a burn and a tan this way: When the skin is tanning, it’s crying for help. When the skin is burned, it cannot cry anymore because the skin cells have died.

My child has a bad burn, now what?

The damage to the skin is done, but you can help avoid infection and relieve pain. For a normal burn, you can apply some soothing lotion to help moisturize the skin. Choose something bland like Aquaphor or petroleum jelly if the burn is bad. For a second-degree burn — one with a blister — do not pop the blister. Have a cool bath or apply cool compresses on the burn itself. You can give Ibuprofen to try to reduce the swelling and the pain. Hydrocortisone cream also can help.

If the blister pops or the skin beneath it appears wet, see a doctor to rule out infection.

Hill and Atkuri don’t see a lot of these severe burns, but occasionally the area can become infected and need antibiotics.

What is this SPF and what does it mean?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. In theory, if your skin will burn after 10 minutes and you use an SPF of 30, the sunscreen would extend your skin’s natural protection 30 times more than bare skin alone, says Patricia Agin, Coppertone’s scientific affairs leader at its Solar Research Center. She studies the effectiveness of sunscreen in the lab and in real-world situations with kids and their parents on the beaches of Florida. SPF, she says, is “really a ballpark measure of the power of protection.”

You also can think of SPF as the percentage of UV rays it protects against: SPF 50 blocks 98 percent; SPF 30, 96 percent; and SPF 15, 93.7 percent.

Which SPF is right for our family?

The FDA recommends sunscreens with SPFs of 15 to 50. It has recently changed how sunscreens have to be labeled. Now you’ll see something called SPF 50+, because it has determined that there’s not a really big difference in sunscreens once you get above SPF 50. Agin doesn’t agree and says there are some cases — people who work outdoors — where that extra margin of protection might be helpful.

Both Hill and Atkuri recommend an SPF of at least 30.

What’s ‘broad spectrum’?

This is part of the new labeling required by the end of this year by the FDA. “Broad spectrum” means the lotion or spray protects against both UVA and UVB rays. That’s what you want in a sunscreen.

Why do bottles now say ‘water resistant’ instead of ‘waterproof’?

There’s no such thing as truly “waterproof,” Hill says. Now the FDA is requiring manufacturers to label it “water resistant” as well as give the number of minutes that it is considered “water resistant.” This way parents will know that if you see a “water resistant (40 minutes),” they can expect that after 40 minutes, that sunscreen might have floated away.

You want a water resistant sunscreen especially if you are in the water, around the water or sweating (when in Texas are we not sweating?).

What’s the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

Sunblock will have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in it. It prevents the UV rays from penetrating into the skin. It can be used by children younger than 6 months, but check with your pediatrician first. Keeping babies that young out of the sun and covered will be a better option than the sunblock.

Sunscreen doesn’t block the UV rays, but it changes them once they hit the skin to make the rays not as harmful.

What’s the difference between sunscreen for kids and adults?

There are subtle differences in the formulations, Agin says, and specifically the products that are for children have been tested with children. The sunscreens for children are more attune to delicate skin, she says.

The differences between adult and kids sunscreen might not matter with your children, but the ones that say “babies” are significantly different enough to matter for younger children, Atkuri says.

Can I use regular sunscreen for the face?

Yes, but not for the eyes or lips. Those areas get covered best with a sunscreen stick made for the face. Sunscreen that is made for the face might feel better on your face than those for the body and some people might have an adverse reaction to sunscreen for the body on their face. If you’re using a spray form, remember to spray the sunscreen into your hands and then apply it to your face.

How often and how much sunscreen should I apply?

This is where we all mess up the most. It doesn’t matter how much SPF your sunscreen has if you forget to reapply it.

The general rule is apply a sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Then reapply every hour to two hours. If you’re at the pool, you should reapply every time you towel off as well because you’ll be removing the sunscreen with your towel.

An average size adult with a bathing suit on should use 1 ounce or a shot glass full of sunscreen every time.

Lotion rather than a spray is easier to see how much you’re using, but with the spray you should be able to feel that you have covered the entire area well. When in doubt, use more.

If you have older children who are applying their own sunscreen, double check them. Atkuri says her own children, ages 13 and 15, often miss the backs of their legs, their shoulders near their armpits and their backs.

Also, when you’re applying sunscreen, you want it to be to dry skin, unless it’s the new kind that can be sprayed on wet skin and says so on the label.

Better than sunscreen, avoid the sun

All of our experts recommend avoiding the times of day when the UV rays are worst: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you have to go out, cover up. Some new clothing is made to be protective and will have a UPF level (ultraviolet protection factor) on the label. Even if you don’t buy special clothing, all clothing has some protection. A white T-shirt has a natural 3 SPF. Hold up your clothing to the light and if you cannot see through it, you’ll get a decent level of protection. If not, put sunscreen underneath it.

Don’t forget hats and sunglasses as well. Broad-rimmed hats are better than ball caps because they protect the ears and the back of the neck. Sunglasses should say that they block 99 percent of the UVA and UVB rays. Those that wrap around the eyes are better than those with just front protection.

Make sun protection fun for kids

The EPA has online games and quizzes that kids can take to help them learn about sun protection. Go to http://www.epa.gov/sunwise.


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