Secondary Drowning: Things to look out for. You may have heard the terms secondary drowning, near drowning or dry drowning, not least after media coverage of incidents such as that involving 4-year-old Francisco Delgado in Texas this June, who died around a week after he had been in the water. The case was reported in the media as delayed drowning, though some dispute that as the cause of death. Nevertheless, it has drawn attention to these terms, which remain confusing and alarming to parents. While such cases are deeply worrying for parents, they are in fact rare and can be prevented and treated. Here we take a look at the different terms and try to clarify some of the misconceptions around drowning and near drowning, as well as pointing out some warning signs.
What is drowning?
Drowning occurs wherever there is suffocation due to water being inhaled into the lungs. All deaths related to this, whether in the water or with a later onset, belong on this drowning spectrum. Drowning remains a high risk for children and young toddlers, who can be in danger even in shallow water such as a pond or bath. Awareness of these dangers, though, is now fairly high and parents are largely aware of precautions to take and make sure buoyancy aids are worn. The Royal Lifesaving Society UK says that for children, drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death.
The group also says thousands more people who survive drowning, called near-drowning, are left with injuries and health problems, also known as submersion injuries.
So what is secondary drowning?
Secondary, sometimes called near, or delayed drowning, can develop some hours – or up to a day – after the person had difficulties in the water, although symptoms are more commonly immediate. It happens when an amount of water has entered the lungs which causes some inflammation and subsequent breathing difficulties. Where water has not entered, but problems occur following immersion in water, this is due to spasms in the airways also disturbing normal breathing, and is sometimes referred to as dry drowning.
What is important is knowing how to prevent any submersion injuries and being watchful for any breathing difficulties in your child if you know they were in trouble in the water. Any small children who have a spell of unsupervised immersion in water and experience breathing difficulties afterwards should be seen by a doctor and carefully observed. Although mortality from submersion injuries is rare – accounting for only 1-2% of drowning incidents, it is wise to be alert to the signs, and these are recognisable.
What to look out for
Distress in the water – if your child has shown signs of distress or panic and had to be removed from the water, you should seek medical attention
Coughing – if this is persistent or requiring increased effort
Breathing difficulties – signs that your child is having to work harder than normal to breathe, such as more rapid, shallow breathing, deeper forced breaths or flared nostrils
Chest pain or vomiting
Excessive tiredness – or uncharacteristic sleepiness
Changes in behaviour – grumpiness, forgetfulness or low energy which might indicate not enough oxygen reaching the brain
If you have any concerns about possible secondary drowning or submersion injuries, you should get your child checked by a medical professional immediately. Put them into the recovery position if they become unconscious and are not breathing.
Keep a close eye on any child who has had an incident in the water. And remember, the safest way is to always stay near to your child, observe them in the water and be close at hand. The stories around secondary drowning are alarming, but the cases are infrequent and you can take simple measures to reduce the risk and be aware of the dangers.
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