Secondary drowning is a very rare and is basically a condition where water in lungs does not drain out causing a reaction by the body that could cause death if not noticed quickly.
1) Nonfatal or “secondary drowning” — when there has been an event in the water and the child has been fine for a time — is very rare, and is actually a pneumonia-like condition. “Secondary drowning” is often confused with “dry drowning,” which occurs when a person in the water panics and there is a laryngeal spasm and asphyxia occurs, but there is no water in the lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It can happen if water from a pool gets into your lungs, but also if you aspirate a piece of food or vomit,” said Morocco. “The important thing for parents to remember is that any time your child has trouble breathing and it lasts longer than expected and the child begins to behave in a bizarre way, you need to go to the ER.”
Even something as small as a peanut, if it’s sucked down into the lungs, can spark a reaction that results in fluid buildup, Morocco said. “The body makes its own fluid, and when it hits a critical mass you start to have trouble breathing.”
And that’s why kids’ behavior starts to become odd: They’ve become oxygen-deprived. Most kids come out of it OK. But they have to be brought to the ER and kept under observation until they recover, said Morocco.
According to Dr. Alexis Topjian, an attending physician in the pediatric ICU at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, symptoms of “secondary drowning” include:
- Coughing after the event is over
- The child is not acting like himself
- A change in the color of the lips
- A change in breathing
“They might be breathing faster or pulling air in so you can see their ribs sticking out when they breathe — those can be signs that a child is working harder to breathe,” says Topjian. “Most people aren’t aware that the danger isn’t necessarily over once a kid has been pulled out of the water.” Symptoms can progress in the hours after a near-drowning..
“A lot of times [parents] don’t know they need to bring the child to medical attention,” says Topjian. “A child can come out looking OK, but this can occur hours afterwards. It needs close watching.” If not, the consequences can be dire.
2) A child who’s coughing and having trouble breathing hours after nearly drowning should be taken to the emergency room, doctors say. A rare but sometimes deadly aftershock of near-drownings are so-called secondary drownings as the body tries to expel water from the lungs. Most episodes of secondary drownings occur seven or so hours after mishaps in the water but may happen as soon as two hours afterward — with the danger passing in 24 to 48 hours.
“They may be completely fine,” Louis Profeta, an emergency room physician at St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis told Fox 5. “The lungs start to fill up with water. It’s not necessarily the water they’ve inhaled, but it’s a biological, physiological response to near-drowning.” That response occurs as the larynx in the throat relaxes to allow water into the lungs, with sudden mood swings also a symptom of trouble.
“If you’ve had a child that’s had a near-drowning episode, I would certainly hope that you’d bring them into the emergency department,” Profeta said. “But if they look fine and you’re at home and all of a sudden the child takes a turn for the worse, starts coughing a lot, complaining of having trouble breathing, you need to bring them immediately to the emergency department.”
Having seen many such cases for years, Profeta says children may appear listless and sick, as if suffering from an asthma attack or other respiratory illness — and suggested that parents “trust their gut.” Symptoms progressed quickly for 10-year-old Johnny Jackson of Goose Creek, S.C., six years ago when his mother Cassandra sent him to bed, fatigued from a day of swimming.
“My friend went back into the room where Johnny was sleeping and noticed what appeared to be cotton balls stuffed in his nose,” Jackson told ABC News, referring to her son’s foaming of the mouth. “She asked if I put them there and I said no — I went in and saw him and screamed for help. I rolled him over and his body was very limp and I realized he’d soiled himself again and was very purplish-blue looking,”
Johnny’s tongue had been swollen too, she added. While no government keeps statistics on such secondary drownings, experts generally recognize that small amounts of water inhaled into the lungs may pose a later threat as fluid accumulates hours after the exposure, with death a possibility.