What is secondary drowning?

“Secondary drowning” is a non-medical term used to refer to delayed symptoms that are experienced after a person has been in water. It is a rare problem. It can happen when someone is exposed to water — even a small amount — and it gets in their lungs. Secondary drowning most often happens after a child has been swimming or bathing.

Symptoms of secondary drowning may begin up to 24 hours after water exposure. They include:

  • Constant coughing.
  • Chest pain.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Decreased energy.
  • Extreme fatigue (feeling tired or sleeping more than normal).
  • Change in behavior, such as being fussy or irritable.

The underlying cause of secondary drowning is pulmonary edema. This is a medical condition in which water irritates the lungs and makes it hard to breathe. The irritation causes your lungs to swell and retain water. Instead of your lungs filling with air when you take a breath, they fill with fluid caused by this swelling. It prevents enough oxygen from reaching your lungs and other organs, such as your heart.

Is dry drowning the same as secondary drowning?

No, dry drowning is different than secondary drowning. In dry drowning, a small amount of water taken in through the nose or mouth causes a spasm in the person’s airway. This causes the airway to close up, making it hard to breathe. It usually happens soon after the person has left the water.

Though rare, both secondary and dry drowning are dangerous and can lead to death if they are not treated.

Path to improved health

Can secondary or dry drowning be prevented?

Yes, there are steps you can take to prevent your child from experiencing secondary or dry drowning. They are the same steps recommended to prevent any other kind of drowning or water injury:

Have your child take swim lessons.

If your child is more skilled at moving around in the water, he or she is less likely to take in water that could cause problems.

Supervise your child.

Always watch children closely when they are in or around water. Do not let your child be alone in or near water.

Practice water safety measures.

Don’t leave standing water around where a child could get into it. Surround pools with four-sided fencing and a latching gate. Make sure your child is wearing a flotation device when they are on a boat.

Things to consider

The best way to survive secondary or dry drowning is to seek help right away. If your child nearly drowns or has trouble breathing after swimming, go to the emergency room right away.

If your child goes to the hospital, his or her treatment will depend on how severe their symptoms are. Children with mild symptoms might just need careful observation. If symptoms are worse, the doctor may want to do a chest X-ray to look for fluid in the lungs. Severe cases could require help breathing, such as a breathing tube or ventilator. But those cases are very rare.

In any case, the doctor might want to keep your child overnight. This way, they can monitor their breathing and oxygen levels.

It is important to note that swallowing water does not lead to secondary or dry drowning. These are only caused by breathing water into the airway or lungs.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my child has symptoms of secondary drowning or is simply tired or sick?
  • How long should I wait to take my child to the emergency room?
  • If I notice symptoms of drowning, should I give my child CPR?