I saw the story in the news a few weeks ago. A little girl in Florida was out swimming with her family and breathed in a little water. Her mother said she coughed at the time, caught her breath, and went right back to swimming. Two days later, she was in the intensive care unit.
The child suffered what’s called secondary drowning.
What is secondary drowning?
Secondary drowning, also called near drowning, happens when a little water enters the lungs. Like the mother in Florida described, the child may cough a bit and go right back to playing. Symptoms tend to appear about 24 hours later.
Symptoms of secondary drowning include:
- Coughing or trouble breathing
- Changes in behaviour
- Change in appearance – a child may just “look” sick
If you notice these symptoms, seek medical help right away.
Dry drowning vs. secondary drowning
Dry drowning is different from secondary drowning and usually occurs when a child experiences a sudden, high impact submersion, like jumping from a high dive or at the end of a high-velocity water slide. With dry drowning, water never reaches the lungs. Droplets hit the larynx or voice box causing an involuntary spasm of the larynx, which shuts the airway down. If it’s severe enough, a child can go underwater and never come up.
Tips to prevent dry & secondary drownings
The best you can do is take every step reasonably possible to ensure your child’s safety. Prevent secondary and dry drownings — and all drownings
- Supervise kids closely near any body of water (this includes the bathtub)
- Enroll in swim lessons. Children are physically and cognitively capable of learning proper techniques around age 4.
- Keep a phone nearby when you’re at the pool or beach so you can call for help easily, and sign up for a CPR class.
As for that little girl in Florida, she spent a few days in the hospital but is now home and healthy. I cannot erase the threat posed by even the smallest bit of water, but I can reassure you that stories like hers make the news for a reason; they are incredibly rare. Dry and secondary drownings account for only 1 to 2 percent of all drownings. As parents, we will inevitably worry about that very small “what if,” but I encourage you to spend more time learning the steps you can take to avoid tragedy and enjoying the summer with your children. I offer more tips in my articles on drowning prevention and pool rules to help you prepare your family for a season of fun in the sun.
Disclaimer: This post was updated on 5/11/2018 to reflect current pediatric recommendations.