Dry drowning and secondary drowning – what you need to know

If your child seems fine when leaving the water but has difficulty breathing between an hour and 24 hours later, this could be why. Here's what to do...

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Though it’s an incredibly rare thing, we think every parent should know it’s possible that, after your child has been swimming, he or she might still be able to ‘drown’ on dry land in 1 of 2 ways: by dry drowning or secondary drowning.

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Any child that’s been pulled out of the water after getting into difficulties should be checked over and given medical attention.

And even if your child has simply been under water for a short time, you should consider keeping an eye on them for symptoms for the next 24 hours.

What is dry drowning?

Dry drowning happens when your child breathes in water, and that causes his or her vocal chords to spasm and close up – after he’s already left the pool or sea. 

What is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning occurs when water gets into your child’s lungs, causing inflammation and making it hard for his or her body to turn oxygen into carbon dioxide, and vice versa.

The signs of secondary drowning may take longer to show –  but the results of either type of drowning are the same: your child will have difficulty breathing.

Either dry drowning or secondary drowning can happen to adults, too, but it’s seen more often in kids because of their small size. 

Obviously, there’s no need to panic. Like we said, both dry drowning and secondary drowning are very rare.

But it’s definitely worth taking the time to learn the signs of these conditions, so you know what to do if you think your child might be affected.

What are the signs of dry drowning and secondary drowning?

Signs to look out for if you think your child might be in danger of dry drowning or secondary drowning are:

  • blue lips
  • pale skin
  • coughing
  • trouble breathing
  • sleepiness
  • vomiting
  • soiling themselves
  • change in behaviour or forgetfulness.

How are dry and secondary drowning treated?

The doctor will check to see how your child is breathing. Where it seems they need help to breathe, a ventilator will be used.

As said before, dry and secondary drowning are rare – causing only 1 or 2 per cent of drowning incidents – but it’s still worth being aware of the facts, and setting your mind to rest for the holiday season.

One mum’s story

Mum Darcy McQueeney shared a post on Facebook after her 3-year-old-son found himself in hospital with the effects of secondary drowning: he had been in a pool and under water for less than 30 seconds.

Here’s Darcy’s post in full:

“Please take a good look at this photo. This is my 3.5 year old laying unresponsive in a hospital bed less than six hours after jumping into the pool. He only went under for less than thirty seconds.

“He was being watched by two sober, conscientious adults who were both less than ten feet away in a gated pool. That is likely why he is alive, because he was grabbed out of the water quickly.

“However, that small blip of time was all it took for him to inhale water. The water he inhaled caused him to spike a fever, desat, and become unresponsive due to a possible seizure.

“He was talking and even eating after the incident, but went downhill hours later. Everyone who we met in the PICU remarked at how incredibly lucky he is to be alive.

“Not only because he didn’t drown initially, but because he was at a gigantic risk for secondary drowning. Despite him being able to eat and talk and seeming like he was ok after the incident, he was NOT OK.

“Water safety should be a top priority for everyone. Do not ever leave children unattended near any source of water. Even following all of the rules, accidents happen.

“Even if they are acting ok after near drowning, please take them to the hospital. What if we had assumed he was OK and put him to bed?

“I don’t know how to stress this enough. His PICU nurse asked us to please use our experience to spread awareness.

“My son shocked everyone by bouncing back at record speed and is okay, but he is fortunate. Please spread awareness about how important it is to take water safety seriously, including after care for near drowning.”

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