Secondary Drowning: What it is and Why Every Parent Should Know the Symptoms

By JustMommies staff

Drowning is a leading cause of death among young children, but even if you're vigilant about watching your kids near water, they could still be at risk. Secondary drowning, also known as "dry drowning," is a phenomenon that many parents don't even consider and yet, while rare, its risks are very real.

What is Secondary Drowning?

Secondary drowning, or dry drowning, occurs when someone inhales just enough water to cause complications with breathing. This typically, although not in every case, happens during a struggle in the water. Once the water enters the airway, debris (e.g. salt, bacteria, dirt and chemicals found in chlorine) can injure the lungs, causing fluid to leak into the small balloon-like structures that are attached to the branches of the bronchial passages (alveoli). Also, water coming into the lungs sweeps away a chemical (surfactant) that allows the alveoli to expand. These processes make it extremely difficult to breathe.

If left untreated, the fluid buildup can lead to respiratory distress, brain damage (brain hypoxia) and cardiac arrest.

For example, someone who has had a near-drowning experience, but survived, may be thought to be fine afterward. However, secondary drowning is still a risk due to the fluid building in the lungs, and the person should be watched for symptoms. The medical term for fluid buildup in the lungs is called "pulmonary edema" and if left untreated, it can kill.

Symptoms of Secondary Drowning

It's important to pay attention to the risk factors for secondary drowning, such as vigorous play or roughhousing in the water, or a near-drowning experience. Someone who has had a near-drowning experience, but survived, may be thought to be fine afterward. However, secondary drowning is still a risk due to the fluid building in the lungs, and the person should be watched for the following symptoms.

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Persistent or sever cough
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Extreme fatigue or drowsiness

These symptoms can appear within a few minutes, or up to a few hours, after an incident. In children, symptoms can be harder to identify, especially since most children are exhausted after being in the water and parents put them to sleep. That's why if any incidents occur while in the water, make sure to keep your child up for several hours and watch for symptoms over the next 24 hours. If symptoms arise, seek immediate medical attention.

What to Do if You Suspect Secondary Drowning

Act quickly if you suspect your child is struggling as a result of secondary drowning. Get to the emergency room as soon as symptoms start to appear and let the doctor know that you suspect dry drowning. Quick treatment, usually with oxygen or ventilation assistance, can save lives. Even if your child survives a secondary drowning, medical attention can also help avoid brain damage.

Can Secondary Drown be Prevented?

Secondary drowning can be prevented by ensuring water safety at all times. For younger children, never take your eyes off of them when in or around water. The same goes for inexperienced swimmers. Teaching kids to swim, blow air out and stay calm in the water will go a long way to helping them help themselves. Also, make sure they're wearing proper gear in the water if they can't swim (although this is not a replacement for adult supervision), and take a CPR class to ensure further safety around the water.