When summer’s warm temperatures take you and your family to the pool, no doubt you are on guard to ensure your child swims safely and every step is taken to reduce drowning risk. Unfortunately, the devastating effects of a drowning can occur long after your child leaves the pool. In rare circumstances, it’s possible for a child to have problems develop long after they’ve left the water. This is called secondary drowning.
Secondary drowning occurs when a child takes water into the lungs and later experiences breathing difficulties, typically within 24 hours of submersion. The initial inhalation of water occurs during the swimming, often when your child struggles in the water and gasps. This can cause your child to take in quite a bit of water. For parents, it can feel like a “near-miss” where your child may need to be rescued in the water or has difficulty swimming.
When your child takes in water in an attempt to get air, the water has to go somewhere—unfortunately, this is often the lungs (known as aspiration). While the lungs can expel some water out via coughing, they may be unable to get all the water out. This causes a condition known as pulmonary edema, where the fluid in the lungs limits their ability to transfer oxygen. Sadly, the results can be deadly and lead to suffocation anywhere from 24-48 hours after being in the water.
Signs and symptoms
If your child has been submerged and experienced a near-drowning or difficult time in the water for an extended time period (a minute or more), you should automatically take precautions against secondary drowning. From seeking medical attention to being hyper-aware of subsequent symptoms, these steps are vital to keeping your child well. Remember that your child may not recognize his or her own symptoms or know the right words to describe how he or she is feeling.
Symptoms to look for include:
- Changes in behavior and energy level—your child may start to act lethargic.
- Difficulty breathing—your child may start to use stomach muscles to breathe or start breathing more rapidly.
- Feeling cool to the touch or appearing pale.
- Wet-sounding cough or voice and crackling sounds over the lungs.
Parents might have difficulty distinguishing between a severe episode of submersion that could lead to secondary drowning and the minor sputtering that many children experience when learning to swim. Some swim programs, such as infant self-rescue programs, even emphasize teaching children how to protect themselves from a near-drowning episode. The teaching can involve submerging a child, which can cause water intake. If you use these types of approaches with your child, it’s important they are done with the instruction of a trained professional and that you closely monitor your child for signs and symptoms following a training session.
Early intervention is vital to preventing secondary drowning from becoming deadly. Seek immediate medical attention if your child experiences a near-drowning episode or starts to show signs of difficulty breathing.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Secondary drowning occurs after a child has been submerged in water, typically up to 24 hours after exposure.
- Fluid that builds up in the lungs restricts airflow, leading to suffocation.
- Parents should seek immediate treatment if their child becomes lethargic, has a wet-sounding voice, or experiences difficulty breathing after a water submersion episode.