Secondary Drowning

Secondary Drowning

During the heat of summer, swimming can be a refreshing and fun activity for the kids. However, a day at the pool can quickly turn into a life-threatening event.


Pediatric Emergency Room Physician Dr. Cristina Zeretzke sees an influx of drowning and near-drowning cases during the summer months.  She says even if a child is rescued from the water in a near-drowning incident, he or she may still be at risk for secondary drowning.


Secondary drowning is caused by inhaled water in the lungs either due to a near-drowning incident or sudden rush of water—as might happen when jumping from a high surface or exiting a water slide.


“Swimmers often appear fine immediately after the incident, but within one to 24 hours later, symptoms can appear that may include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, lethargy, fever and unusual mood change,” says Zeretzke. “If parents notice these symptoms in their child after swimming, they should bring them to be evaluated by a medical provider.”


Water in a swimmer’s lungs can cause swelling, which does not allow for the exchange of oxygen to and from the blood. This causes the heart to slow as the swimmer’s blood oxygen level drops. The inhalation of pool water can also cause inflammation of the lungs because of chemicals in the water. The absence of oxygen can result in serious complications like brain damage.


“Treating these symptoms quickly is crucial to ensuring a positive outcome for your child. Removing the fluid from their lungs and administering oxygen will reduce the chance of a bad outcome,” says Zeretzke.


Children should be monitored closely if knocked down by a wave, swallow water or cough after jumping in. Also, training new swimmers to close their mouths and hold their breath while jumping in the water can help prevent them from swallowing fluid. Always remember that following safe water practices are important.