Have you ever heard of secondary drowning? What about dry drowning? The terms sound made up, but they represent real – and fairly scary – phenomena. While almost unknown, they account for about 2% of total drowning cases. And as dry and secondary drowning are much more common among children, it’s important to know what to look for during visits to the beach or pool this summer.
Secondary drowning can occur when any amount of water enters someone’s lungs, be it from nearly drowning to simply getting dunked in a pool. The water irritates the lungs, interrupting their normal functioning, and the body can react by diverting bodily fluids to the lungs, slowly filling them and limiting the amount of room for air. This results in what is known as a pulmonary edema and can lead to shortness of breath, loss of control of bodily functions, loss of mental acuity, cardiac arrest and death – all symptoms of slow deprivation of oxygen in the body. This process does not start immediately upon getting the water in the lungs; secondary drowning can begin anywhere from 1-24 hours following the incident.
So what are the warning signs of secondary drowning? If you notice a sudden case of coughing, chest pain or difficulty breathing, combined with erratic behavior or extreme fatigue, call your child’s pediatrician. Luckily, secondary drowning is treatable if caught in time, requiring oxygen or ventilation treatment at a hospital to resolve.
Dry drowning, on the other hand, does not actually involve water filling the lungs. It can occur when breathing in water causes a person’s vocal chords to spasm, blocking the airway and making it difficult to breathe. Unlike secondary drowning, this often occurs immediately upon breathing in water.
The warning signs for dry drowning are the same as for secondary drowning: both can manifest in difficulty with breathing, coughing, sleepiness, and perhaps vomiting or changes in behavior. It’s also treated in the same way, with oxygen and aids to help with breathing. Dry drowning may not require a trip to the hospital for minor cases, so be sure to consult your pediatrician if you think your child may be suffering from it.
While dry and secondary drowning can be scary prospects, it’s important to remember that they aren’t common occurrences. It’s certainly important to be vigilant to keep your child safe, but kids breathe in a little water every day without ill effects, so there’s little reason to become overly stressed at the prospect of your child swimming. And remember, too, that dry and secondary drowning do not result in lasting damage if caught early. The key to keeping your child safe is being aware of the warning signs and acting promptly if you identify them.