When you think of summer dangers, drowning may top the list. Drowning is among the most common causes of accidental death worldwide. It’s a concern for many parents as their kids enjoy time at the lake, ocean or pool. However, even after children have finished swimming, there are still drowning risks that parents should be aware of — dry and secondary drowning.
About one in five people who die from drowning are age 14 and younger. Although it’s rare, children can still drown after they’re on dry land if they’ve breathed water into their lungs while swimming. This may happen if they struggle while in the water, get dunked, or if they get water in their mouths. The water can enter the lungs, leading to potentially life-threatening breathing issues.
With dry drowning, water never reaches the lungs, but breathing in the water causes the vocal chords to spasm and close up. This shuts off the airways, resulting in breathing complications. Symptoms of dry drowning usually happen quickly after an incident in the water. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain, trouble breathing, feeling extremely tired, a drop in energy levels, or a change in behavior, such as irritability. During this time, the brain may not be getting enough oxygen.
Secondary drowning has the same symptoms and also results in breathing issues, but unlike dry drowning, water gets into the lungs, causing a condition called pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema means you have fluid building up in your lungs, which can be life-threatening. It can happen to anyone, but kids are most at risk for secondary drowning because of their small body size.
Symptoms for secondary drowning can start anywhere from one to 24 hours after a water-related incident has occurred. Symptoms are similar to that of dry drowning, and parents should pay close attention to their child’s activity level, whether they are having trouble breathing or are coughing, and whether they are unusually sleepy after time in the water.
If your child presents symptoms, a physician will check and continuously monitor their vital signs. The doctor may also want to take a chest X-ray or administer oxygen. Although in most cases the symptoms go away, it’s important to consult your child’s physician to ensure that he or she isn’t in danger.
Although both dry and secondary drowning are rare, making up only 1 to 2 percent of all drowning incidents, physicians still encourage you to take notice of the symptoms. The best way to prevent dry or secondary drowning is to watch your children closely in the water, only let them swim in areas with lifeguards, and never let them swim alone. If your child shows symptoms of dry or secondary drowning after leaving the water, contact your physician immediately to determine if your child needs help.
Dr. Robb Rettie is with KentuckyOne Health Pediatric Associates.