What parents need to know about dry and secondary drowning

How to Spot Secondary Drowning
How to Spot Secondary Drowning


Pools make me nervous, they always have. I grew up in the city, and none of my friends had an inground pool. We drove to the ocean to cool off. As a parent, the sea doesn't scare me. I watch my children vigilantly, but trust the force of the waves will give me enough time to catch them before they are in too deep. Pools are another story. One turned head, one little slip, and a kid can go from solid ground to submersion. Even now, with all my kids being confident swimmers, I am still wary near a pool. Once everyone is safely out of the water, I should be able to rest easy, right? Wrong. A small percentage of drowning deaths occur after a swimmer has left the water.

Two types of drowning can happen after being in the water. They can happen to adults, but are more common in children.

Delayed, or secondary drowning, occurs when a swimmer has taken water into their lungs, often from a near drowning episode. Consider the toddler who falls in the hot tub or pool. He is struggling, coughing and breathing in water. He is pulled to safety, but some of that water has gotten into his lungs. The water in the lungs causes swelling and prevents the diffusion of oxygen into the bloodstream. Symptoms can occur anywhere from 1 hour to a day later.

Dry drowning has similar causes, but in this case, the water never reaches the lungs. It affects the vocal chords and causes spasms, shutting off the airways from oxygen. Victims of dry drowning usually exhibit symptoms immediately.

Symptoms for both dry and delayed drowning are:

  • Coughing

  • Trouble breathing

  • Lethargy

  • Chest pain

  • Irritability, because oxygen is not reaching the brain

Bottom line for parents: How worried do you need to be? Do you tell your kids to stop splashing and having fun in the water to prevent a tragic outcome? Do you stay up and watch them all night after swimming?

Dry and delayed drowning is very rare, accounting only for about 2% of drowning cases. Simply knowing it is a possibility, however uncommon, is critical. Getting prompt medical care if you are concerned is key.

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your child, especially after a struggle in the water, getting dunked or experiencing a force of water into the face – as can happen on water slides or in rough waves – seek medical help immediately. While there is no specific treatment, care to support breathing and to get water out of the lungs will be administered.

Prevention of these causes of drowning is the same as prevention of all causes of drowning.

  • Teach water safety, including no diving in shallow waters

  • Help your kids learn to swim as early as possible

  • Ensure pools are properly guarded

  • Warn teens of the risk of swimming under the influence of drugs and alcohol

  • Be vigilant when watching your children swim

  • Discourage rough play in and around water

Cooling off in pools, lakes and oceans is a wonderful part of summer. Take the proper precautions and everyone can enjoy a fun and safe season.

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