What is Secondary Drowning?

August 28th 2017
drowning victim

You pay close attention to little ones when swimming, making sure they are not left alone and that a lifeguard is on hand. However, the danger does not end once your child has left the water and has problems breathing – This may sound alarming, but the best way to prevent secondary drowning is knowing how to spot the signs.

What is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning can occur when water gets into the lungs. Although only a small amount of liquid enters the lungs it can cause irritation resulting in a fluid build-up – This is known as pulmonary edema. This would cause a child to have trouble breathing even when out of the water, potentially getting worse over the next 24 hours

Another term used is “dry drowning” however this differs from secondary drowning. Dry drowning usually occurs soon after exiting the water, and is caused by breathing in water, causing your vocal cords to spasm and close up – This results in the airways shutting off making it difficult to breath.

This information is taught in our lifeguard courses that you can view here.

How to spot the signs

Secondary drowning or dry drowning does not take affect without clear signs, look out for the following:

  • Coughing – Persistent coughing or coughing associated with increased work of breathing.
  • Difficulty 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.
  • Sleepiness – It could mean not enough oxygen is getting into the blood.
  • 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 caused by inflammation and sometimes a lack of oxygen, also from persistent coughing and gagging.

Lifeguards, those working at pools or the shore front, always look out for signs and symptoms related to secondary drowning, as this is recognized as something important to look at during an emergency or the immediate aftermath.

What to do

If you have any concern that your child may be showing signs of secondary drowning, whether at a pool or beach, seek medical advice right away. Either contact a life guard or call the child’s doctor and they should be able to talk you through the situation. However, if the child has extreme difficulty breathing call an ambulance or go to the medical room right away.

Please note that both events are very rare. Dry drowning and secondary drowning, while incredibly scary, are rare, says Dr. Zonfrillo, and account for only about 1 to 2 percent of drowning incidents. However, it is a life threatening scenario so if you plan to be around water it is wise to be aware of the signs.

To view our up and coming lifeguard training courses please look at our calendar.