3 things every parent should know about secondary drowning

It's been hours since the kids piled in the car to head home from an afternoon of active play at the neighborhood swimming pool. Everyone's safely in their routines of dinner and bedtime, and you're miles away from the water. So drowning should be the last thing on your mind, right?

In almost every instance, thankfully, the answer to that question is yes. But in cases where your child might have had trouble in the water earlier that day, parents should be aware of the signs of a rare but serious condition known as secondary drowning - and be ready to take action if they notice their child behaving unusually.

What is secondary drowning?

Sometimes called "dry drowning" or "submersion injury," secondary drowning happens when a child breathes in water that enters his lungs and causes problems with the airways, building up until another condition called pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs) makes it difficult to breathe properly. Symptoms of secondary drowning can appear hours after a child has been in the water.

Although it's usually treatable, secondary drowning can occasionally lead to death. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to protect your child.

1. Know how to recognize secondary drowning

If your child has any trouble that causes him to come up from the water sputtering or choking, keep your eyes open over the next 24 hours for the appearance of any symptoms. These include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme fatigue or a sudden drop in energy
  • Trouble breathing or catching breath
  • Irritability or forgetfulness

If you become concerned about any symptoms, take your child to an emergency department right away or call 911. While there is no drug or surgical intervention for secondary drowning, a doctor can assess the situation with a chest X-ray, visual exam, and monitoring of blood-oxygen levels and provide supportive care that keeps your child's airways open until the situation resolves itself.

2. Learn to spot the signs of trouble in the water

In the movies and TV, people who run into trouble in the water are usually depicted yelling and thrashing about. In reality, drowning and other struggles in the water are much quieter - and harder to spot. Things to watch for include a child:

  • Who is suddenly quiet in the water
  • Who is suddenly gasping or choking
  • Whose mouth is at water level and who doesn't seem to be using her arms or legs
  • Whose eyes appear glassy or unfocused.

Any child who is rescued from the water needs to be monitored for the next 24 hours for signs of secondary drowning, even if they appear to be fine.

3. Practice good water safety habits

Supervision is a critical part of water safety, even if your child is a strong swimmer or there is a lifeguard present.

Ideally, you should always be able to get within at least one arm's length of your child within a matter of seconds. Other water-safety tips worth noting:

  • Floaties are our friends: Children should always use flotation devices, life jackets, and swim-training aids until a certified swim instructor deems them ready to swim on their own.
  • Steer clear of entrapments: Pool drains and pipes can attach to hair and swimsuits, causing a swimmer to get stuck or go under.
  • Swim with plenty of light: Particularly when kids are involved, avoid nighttime swimming unless it's in a well-lit environment.
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