Secondary Drowning Danger for Kids Can Go Beyond the Pool

Sunscreen, water wings and supervision are enough to keep our kids safe by the pool, right? Well, a recent story from Lindsay Kujawa suggests otherwise.

In her blog Delighted Momma, Kujawa warns parents of secondary drowning after her 2-year-old son's close call. Since the post appeared in May, her tale has gone viral – and subsequently raised concerns about the little-known condition.


Scary story

Kujawa had never heard of secondary drowning. So when she plucked her son from the spa water he'd slipped under – she'd been sitting right by him on the steps and "turned around for maybe five seconds tops," she writes, and the whole ordeal lasted "around 20 seconds" – and he seemed fine, Kujawa felt lucky.

"Other than Ronin being visibly upset and coughing to get the water out, he seemed totally fine after he had calmed down," she writes. "He did seem more tired than usual after it happened, but I figured he was exhausted from what just occurred."

Ronin's ordeal, however, was far from over. After Kujawa had taken her son home, she began noticing he wasn't acting like himself. She called her pediatrician – who told her to immediately take her son to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed as a secondary drowning victim.

What is it?

"Secondary drowning occurs when water is aspirated into the lungs and collects there as a person struggles in the water," an article by the Cleveland Clinic reports. "That collection of fluid in the lungs is called pulmonary edema, which causes difficult or rapid breathing that can make a 'crackle' sound."

Often, the victim won't notice any problem at first, notes Dr. Ashok P. Sarnaik of Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.

"What happens is there is a significant 'submersion' event first – not somebody dives in and comes out," he explains, "and, immediately after rescue, seems generally OK. The patient can be conscious; they can talk, say, 'I'm OK, whatever' and walk around. Then, after two or three hours, they start to develop a certain amount of respiratory difficulties."

They can take up to six hours to show symptoms, he adds. "What is happening here is that some amount of fluid has damaged the air sacks," causing respiratory damage. "The lung is kind of slowly reacting to the original event, and the small blood vessels of the lungs start leaking fluid into the air sacks."

Though its name implies water as the culprit, secondary drowning can be caused by a number of things.

"It can happen if water from a pool gets into your lungs, but also if you aspirate a piece of food or vomit," Dr. Mark Morocco, a professor of emergency medicine at the Reagan UCLA Medical Center, told Today Health.

Even something as small as a peanut in the lung can trigger this condition.

Signs, caution and action

A child experiencing secondary drowning will often exhibit signs of respiratory distress – including difficulty breathing, choking and an increased rate of breathing, Sarnaik says. He or she may become tired due to lack of oxygen. If left untreated, the child could even die.

"If the child is tired or a little short-of-breath" after an incident where you suspect this condition, "certainly do not put the child to sleep. This could progress, and the child could die of the injury," Sarnaik says. "Frothy fluid coming from the mouth could be too late to save them."

If you notice signs and get your child the proper medical attention right away – "It could just mean observation, giving oxygen or in some cases they could be put on a respirator," Sarnaik says – "once it is taken care of, there are no long-term effects."

Luckily for Ronin, his mother acted quickly and doctors were able to save his life.

In order to prevent secondary drowning, Sarnaik recommends "keeping the pool locked, fenced in and doing the proper prevention." That includes teaching kids basic water safety tips, according to tips on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Pool Safely site, and "staying close, being alert and watching children in and around the pool."

Sarnaik adds that children at the pool should be under constant supervision by an adult that is able to jump in and save them. And, if a child does become submerged, it is always best to get him or her checked out afterwards – just in case.


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