The thought of a child drowning is scary, but the possibility that a child can drown hours — possibly even days — after leaving the pool is simply terrifying.
Parents have become increasingly aware of secondary or “dry” drowning as troubling news of such instances have filled social media feeds and headlines in the past few summers.
Secondary drowning, also known as dry drowning or delayed drowning, is post-immersion respiratory syndrome. It occurs when water or another fluid has entered the lungs but has not caused enough initial trauma to result in fatal drowning. The water that has gotten inside the lungs may cause damage to the inside surface of the organ, collapse alveoli and cause a hardening of the lungs that reduces the ability to exchange air. The body may also retaliate against the foreign water by drawing more fluid into the lungs. Over time, the lungs will suffocate themselves, which is why dry drowning can occur hours after exiting the water.
The following are potential signs of secondary drowning:
- Persistent cough. Anyone who has swallowed water will cough and sputter as the body attempts to naturally expel the water. But persistent coughing that lasts long after the water has been breathed in may be indicative of water aspiration in the lungs.
- Confusion. Difficulty understanding verbal instructions or not being able to form words or thoughts may be a symptom of dry drowning.
- Pain. Chest pain is a strong indicator of water aspiration.
- Trouble breathing. Difficulty breathing long after a person has been swimming may indicate secondary drowning.
- Lethargy. Extreme tiredness or a sudden lack of energy may be indicative of a problem.
Children tend to be more prone to dry drowning than adults. Parents must keep careful watch over any child who has experienced a near-drowning incident or who may have inhaled fluid while in the water. Furthermore, the children who are most at risk for dry drowning are those with known breathing or lung problems, including underdeveloped lungs or asthma.
It’s important to monitor for the symptoms of dry drowning anytime a person swallows water. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, a person would only have to inhale four ounces of water to drown and even less to injure his lungs enough to become a victim of secondary drowning.
WebMD states that dry drowning can occur up to 24 hours after inhaling water, but recent reports of a 4-year-old boy in Texas who died several days after going swimming indicate that dry drowning could take even longer than previously thought. To be safe, keep a close eye on anyone who may have inhaled water for several days.
Dry drowning can not be be treated at home. If you notice any symptoms of dry drowning, go to the hospital immediately. Emergency room physicians can remove residual water from the lungs and administer life-saving oxygen.
While it is important to be mindful of the symptoms, there’s no need to panic. According to WebMD, dry drowning accounts for only 1-2 percent of all drownings. Water safety should be your main concern. Prevention of any kind of drowning — dry and otherwise — is key.