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The Importance of Monitoring Your Child After a Drowning Scare

Secondary drowning is a lesser known threat, but is imperative to understand to promote water safety.
adult person reaching out to save swimming child in water

You know how important water safety is to prevent drowning. But have you ever heard of secondary drowning?

If not, you’re not alone. Secondary, or “dry,” drowning isn’t very well-known, mostly because it makes up a small percentage of all drowning incidents. However, it’s just as serious and can be as equally fatal as primary, or “wet,” drowning if left untreated.

There’s an important distinction between wet and dry drowning. In wet drowning, a victim is submerged in water, which ultimately fills the lungs upon loss of consciousness.

“With dry drowning, people are still submerged in water,” says emergency medicine physician Dr. Steven F. Fisher. “But instead of water getting into the lungs and filling them, the larynx [vocal cords] spasms shut and the person can’t breathe, and drowning occurs.”

Secondary drowning occurs when someone breathes in or aspirates fluid during a near-drowning incident. “When this happens, the fluid that lubricates the lungs [surfactant] is washed out, which makes it difficult to breathe and can lead to progressive lung injury,” explains Dr. Fisher. “You may get someone out of the water, get water out of the lungs, and get the victim talking, but then a delayed injury can occur.”

Signs May Not Be Serious Immediately
Typically, the majority of dry drownings result in acute respiratory distress or non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema, and supportive measures are administered based on the condition of the organs that are damaged or under distress. In many cases, patients are treated with oxygen or ventilation.

Although symptoms of dry drowning typically show within eight hours of a nonfatal drowning incident, a person can appear nearly normal before the signs become serious and/or apparent. However, if left unaddressed, it can cause breathing difficulties, brain injury and even death.

Look for the signs of dry drowning:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Persistent coughing
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Extreme fatigue and fussiness (particularly in young children).

“What parents probably want to know is whether or not they should be worried if their child had a nonfatal near drowning event,” says Dr. Fisher. “If someone has a drowning experience and passes out, or if they’re experiencing the symptoms of dry drowning, they definitely need to go to the emergency room.”

To prevent any drowning, Dr. Fisher advises parents and caregivers to practice water safety. This includes closely monitoring inexperienced swimmers and children in the water, learning CPR, teaching kids how to swim and stay safe in the water, and putting a fence around the pool to prevent kids from accidentally falling in. Even the most capable of swimmers can get into trouble, so it’s important that you stay as safe as possible and go to the ER in case of an emergency.

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