Secondary drowning: essential facts

| June 23, 2014 | 0 Comments

In early June, Lindsay Kujawa went through every parent’s worst nightmare. With her back turned for just a second, her nearly 2-year-old son, Ronin, fell into a nearby spa, she wrote in her blog. Fortunately, she was close enough to quickly pluck him from danger. But the nightmare wasn’t over. Later that evening, she noticed that he was acting strange. Not long after, he was rushed to an emergency room, where Kujawa learned he was suffering from lack of oxygen.

babies swimming with adults

How panicked do you need to be about secondary drowning? As long as you’re already watchful, not very. From overdrive_cz

The culprit? The near-drowning Kujawa thought she had rescued her son from. But Ronin was suffering from a different effect of the incident. It’s what doctors call a dry drowning or secondary drowning, which can happen after a near-drowning.

Ronin was saved, but Kujawa’s blog post about the incident soon went viral with local news outlets picking up the story, and CNN and NBC soon following suit. Frightening headlines warned that “You Can Drown After You Leave the Pool.”

Technically, this is true, but it’s also highly misleading. Secondary drowning is defined as “deterioration of pulmonary function that follows deficient gas exchange due to loss or inactivation of surfactant.” It happens if someone breathes even a small amount of water into their lungs during a struggle or near drowning. The water causes airway muscles to spasm and makes breathing difficult. Fluid can then build up in the lungs, which causes trouble breathing. Symptoms usually appear 1 to 24 hours after an incident, according to a WebMd interview with a drowning expert.

While all this sounds scary, secondary drowning is rare. It happens in only 1 to 5 percent of near drownings, with saltwater immersion being more deadly.

But just getting in the water, or even accidentally swallowing some water while swimming (as long as it’s not swallowed into the lungs), aren’t likely to cause secondary drowning.

Still, if you, or someone you know, experience a near-drowning, or a struggle in the water, here are the signs to watch for:

  • Trouble breathing, chest pain, or cough
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Extreme fatigue 

If you see any of these signs related to a drowning or struggle in the water, immediately seek medical help. Victims can be ventilated in a hospital, and usually recover. But the best way to prevent secondary drowning is to remain vigilant at all times when children are in the water. Experts recommend staying within arm’s distance of children while they are in the water. And remember to fence off any pools or cover spas that are not in use to prevent unintended immersions.

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Category: Safety

About the Author

Gary Thill is the former editor of Aquatics International, an award-winning magazine for the commercial pool and waterpark markets. He is a nationally recognized writer and editor with an extensive communications background that includes print, online and social media.
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