How to spot secondary drowning

Did you know that dry drowning (secondary drowning) can kill a child or adult hours after he has been submersed in water? It is not something we think about. After the initial shock of a near drowning episode we are so thankful that all is ok that we breathe a sigh of relief and vow to be more vigilant.

I remember reading an account from the mother of a ten year old boy who died from "dry drowning" more than an hour after going swimming and walking home. She had said: "I've never known a child could walk around, talk, speak and their lungs be filled with water. Johnny must have got some water in his lungs while he was swimming in his local pool. He didn't show any signs of respiratory distress, but he had an accident in the pool and "soiled himself". His mother had bathed him and he told her he felt sleepy. When she went to check on him later she saw his face was covered in a "spongy white material". He was rushed to hospital but it was too late.

Whenever we talk about dry drowning in our Safe and Sound First Aid courses very few people know about it. So this is a bit technical but hopefully it will explain what happens.

If a child has inhaled (aspirated) even a small amount of water (as little as 2.5-30mls), it can trigger a reaction in the lungs which can be fatal, even 24hrs after the initial incident!

If enough water is inhaled then it can wash away the chemical (surfactant) which keeps part of the lungs (alveoli) open.  Without this surfactant, the lungs begin to collapse.  Then the body’s own fluids as well as those swallowed/inhaled are able to seep into the lungs.  This prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from being exchanged and effectively causes the patient to drown.  This can occur much later than the initial incident and without any more fluid being inhaled.

This is called dry drowning or secondary drowning.

The symptoms include:-

Lethargy
Difficulty in breathing
Pain when breathing (especially when taking deep breaths)
Coughing
Possible wheezing

Symptoms are sometimes exacerbated when lying flat.

If you or your child has an incident in the water, get yourself or the child checked out immediately by accident and emergency. However mild it is - better always to be safe.