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Secondary drowning: What you need to know to protect your child

May 08, 2015

This post was originally posted on June 27, 2014.

It’s summertime. And here in Florida, that means if you’re outside you’re probably near a pool, lake or beach. Because it is HOT. HOT. HOT.

My family’s summertime activities revolve around the water: boogey-boarding at the beach, backyard pool parties and neighborhood splash pads. And while kids can let loose and be carefree, these water activities come with a heavy responsibility for parents. We want our kids to have fun, but above all we must provide for their safety.

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of moms talking about secondary drowning (sometimes referred to as “dry drowning”). In fact, one of the reasons this topic has gotten a lot of attention recently is because of this mom sharing her son’s frightening ordeal.

What is secondary drowning?

The terms “secondary drowning” or “dry drowning” refer to an experience where someone has had a struggle in the water, yet the person appears to recover after the incident. Only later (even though the person may be walking around and appearing relatively normal), do they begin experiencing trouble breathing. They can suffer the same detrimental outcomes, namely brain injury and death, if they do not receive life-saving medical care.

However, the terms “secondary drowning” and “dry drowning” can be misleading and are no longer used by experts. Each of those terms are included within the broader definition of drowning: the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid.

In other words, whether a person’s breathing is compromised immediately after they are rescued from the water or the effect is delayed, it is all considered drowning.

What signs should I look for if my child has had a struggle in the water?

One of the important things to know is that even if your child is rescued from the water and appears to be breathing normally immediately after the incident, your child still may need medical care.

According to Dr. Lawrence Spack, Medical Director of Pediatric Critical Care Services at Arnold Palmer Hospital, here are some of the signs you should look for in your child:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unusual coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Appearance that looks blue in color
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Behavior that is different than usual
  • Sleepiness or lethargy

If I suspect a problem, what should I do?

Dr. Spack advises that if your child sustained a drowning episode and is experiencing any of the symptoms above, get medical help immediately. Also, if your child requires any type of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) they should be evaluated by medical personnel.

However, not every child requires medical attention. If you have questions, contact your pediatrician immediately for further direction.

How can I prevent this from happening to my child?

Drowning is the leading cause of death by injury in children one to four years of age. Three children die every day as a result of drowning. Yet, drowning can be prevented.

The most important thing you can do is take safety precautions around the water (even small bodies of water, like bathtubs or buckets).

When children are in and around water, vigilant adult supervision is a must. Arm yourself with the knowledge of life-saving CPR in case an accident occurs. Be sure that your children are taught how to maneuver in the water safely (swimming and floating). Don’t be distracted by other things when your kids are in the water.

Don’t consume alcohol when you’re caring for children. Put your phones away, and be sure that you employ safety measures such as pool fences that surround a pool completely.

And remember, seconds count. Keep your eyes on them at all times.