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Moms Watch Out for These Signs and Symptoms of Dry Drowning or Secondary Drowning

Swimming Pool

Every mother by now has read with horror of the story of the Texas boy who has died from “secondary drowning.” Here are the signs and symptoms and how to prevent it from happening.


Summer time with the family is full of fun times. Growing up, we always had access to a swimming pool and we learned at an early age how to be safe in and around the pool. Today, with my own kids, I am super vigilant about watching them while they are swimming to ensure they are safe.

But, I’m sorry to say that just being in the water isn’t the only swimming danger you need to be on the lookout for.

As you have by now read, a four year old boy in Texas went swimming with his family. Over the next week, he displayed symptoms that resembled a stomach bug – vomiting and diarrhea. However, what was not known at the time was that he had inhaled water and that fluid was filling up his lungs and around his heart.

There are actually two different terms for drowning that occurs outside of the water – medically known as submersion injuries. Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning are separate conditions, but both are equally as concerning.

Dr. Mark R Zonfrillo MD MSCE at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says that “dry drowning happens when someone takes in a small amount of water through the nose and/or mouth. It causes a spasm in the airway, causing it to close up. This happens soon after exiting the water.

Secondary drowning, however, is when the water enters the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling which makes it difficult for the body to adequately transfer oxygen to carbon dioxide and vice versa. Secondary drowning symptoms are delayed – up to 24 hours later before one starts showing signs of distress.

Signs and Symptoms to Watch Out For

Dry drowning and secondary drowning incidents are rare – only accounting for about 1 to 2 percent of submersion injuries. But you should be aware of the signs if your family will be spending time at the pool, lake or ocean this summer:

• Water rescue. If your child has had a pool incident (where they went under water and likely swallowed water) – and especially if they needed rescuing - they should be seen by a doctor soon after even if they seem fine at the time. During the week, contact your child’s pediatrician; in after-hours or weekend incidents, contact urgent care. With any difficulty breathing, though, head straight to the ER or call 911.

• Coughing. Persistent coughing or coughing associated with increased work of breathing needs to be evaluated.

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• Increased "work of breathing." Rapid shallow breathing, nostril flaring, or where you can see between the child's ribs or the gap above their collarbone when they breathe, means they're working harder to breathe than normal. This is a sign that you should seek medical help immediately.

• Sleepiness. Your kid was just excitedly playing in the pool, and now is feeling fatigued? It could mean not enough oxygen is getting into to the blood. Don't put him or her to bed until the doctor gives you the go-ahead.

• Forgetfulness or change in behavior. Similarly, a dip in oxygen level could cause your child to feel sick or woozy.

• Throwing up. Vomiting is a sign of stress from the body as a result of the inflammation and sometimes a lack of oxygen, also from persistent coughing and gagging.

How to prevent it

Prevention is the same for dry drowning and secondary drowning as it is for any other kind of drowning:

Swim lessons. Kids who are comfortable and skilled at moving around in the water are less likely to go under and take in water. Around age 4 is a good time to start.

• Supervision. Monitor kids closely in and around the water, and enforce pool safety rules.

• Water safety measures. Children should wear floatation devices on boats; pools should have four-sided fencing around them; and you should never leave standing water where a child could get into it.

Water safety is a critical need for your family – but don’t overly stress about “dry drowning.” It is truly a rare condition. Have fun, but be safe around water this summer.

USA Today

Photo Credit:
By Rufino Uribe – via Wikimedia Commons