Secondary Drowning - The Hidden Danger


As the weather begins to get warmer, more families will be spending time outdoors, heading to the beaches, or vacationing in tropical destinations. A major attraction of all of these activities is to take advantage of both natural and human-made bodies of water. While spending time in the water can be an excellent recreational (or aerobic) activity for your children, water play is not without inherent risks. While you are likely familiar with a lot of the dangers associated with swimming or playing in bodies of water, one you may not be familiar with is secondary drowning. Read on to learn more about secondary drowning and why you should be aware of this condition.

What is Secondary Drowning?

In the simplest terms, secondary drowning occurs when a person’s airways open up and let water into the lungs. The water builds up in the lungs and eventually causes pulmonary edema which may cause respiratory failure. The real concern here is that it doesn’t take much to trigger an incident. Something as simple as your child getting dunked or getting water in their mouth unexpectedly can be enough to cause them to breathe water into their lungs. While secondary drowning only accounts for 1-2% of all drowning incidents (prompt treatment, parents must be vigilant because symptoms may not appear for up to 24 hours after the water enters the lungs.

What are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of secondary drowning include coughing, chest pain, trouble breathing, and feeling fatigued. Children may also become irritable or experience sudden drops in energy level due to a lack of oxygen reaching the brain as a result of pulmonary edema. If your child is exhibiting these symptoms after spending time in a pool, lake, the ocean, or any other natural or human-made body of water, seek medical help as soon as possible. Secondary drowning is only fatal because the fluid in the lungs goes untreated so make sure your child gets the medical care they need.

Preventative Measures

While it is not 100% possible to prevent your child from inhaling water into their lungs, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize the risk listed below.

  • Watch your child carefully when they are in or around water

  • Never let your kids swim alone

  • Avoid swimming areas that do not have a lifeguard

  • Teach your children to tell you if they think they may have breathed in water

  • If you have a pool at home, keep it completely fenced in so little ones can’t gain access on their own

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