In early June, a 4-year-old boy in Texas died days after swimming. The suspected cause was “secondary drowning,” a rare but incredibly dangerous condition that can affect swimmers long after leaving the pool. It’s important that every parent knows the symptoms of dry drowning and secondary drowning. These two “submersion injuries” pose a serious danger to kids after swimming, and being able to identify them could save lives.
Secondary drowning and dry drowning are both potentially fatal conditions that can occur hours after swimming, particularly if someone has been suddenly submerged and has inhaled water. Although they can affect anyone, children are especially vulnerable.
Secondary drowning and dry drowning have similar causes and symptoms, but they are in fact different conditions. Secondary drowning occurs when a person inhales a small amount of water, which in turn causes fluid to build up in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary edema. The fluid prevents oxygen from going into the lungs and, from there, into the blood, leading eventually to asphyxiation. According to Popular Science, secondary drowning can happen anytime between one and 24 hours after water is inhaled.
In contrast, dry drowning usually occurs shortly after a swimmer inhales water. In these cases, the influx of water through the nose or mouth causes a person’s airway to spasm, blocking oxygen to the lungs.
Both conditions have similar symptoms. If your child is suddenly submerged in water or inhales water, be on the lookout for these signs:
1. Difficulty breathing.
If your child is struggling to breathe or having to work unusually hard to breathe, seek help immediately.
2. Coughing and chest pain.
Pay special attention if your child's coughing is persistent.
3. Sudden fatigue.
According to Parents.com, sudden sleepiness could be a sign that your child isn’t getting enough oxygen.
4. Sudden irritability or other abnormal change in behavior.
Again, a change in behavior could indicate a lack of oxygen.
Pediatrician Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D., told Parents.com, “Vomiting is a sign of stress from the body as a result of the inflammation and sometimes a lack of oxygen, also from persistent coughing and gagging.”
If you notice any of these signs in your child — or he or she simply isn’t acting normally after being in the water — call a doctor immediately.
Every adult should also know what typical drowning looks like. (Hint: It’s not what it looks like in the movies). You can learn to spot the signs of drowning here.