If your summer plans include a dip in the pool or a swim in the ocean, then it’s important that you know the dangers of drowning and what you can do to prevent an accident or cope with a drowning injury. When you think of drowning, you probably imagine a nightmarish scenario in which you find your child unresponsive at the bottom of the pool. Yet with a devastating phenomenon called secondary drowning, victims can die from drowning hours after leaving the pool.

Lifeguards have to learn how to prevent drowning and save drowning victims in the water, but there’s still the danger of secondary drowning. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Signs and Symptoms of (Secondary) Drowning

The World Health Organization officially defines drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” As secondary drowning demonstrates, the victim doesn’t have to be still in the water at the time the respiratory impairment becomes a life-threatening problem. Primary drowning, what we traditionally think of when we think about drowning, involves nearly immediate death from inhaling as little as four ounces of water, but in secondary drowning, inhaling even less water can damage the lungs, according to The Redwoods Group. The irritation and damage can result in the body producing fluid in the lungs, which can cause drowning as late as 72 hours (three days) after the water first entered the lungs.

In other words, if your child – or for that matter, an adult – swallows some water while swimming and coughs it up or experiences a near-drowning experience, you can’t just assume that just because the victim survived the close call means that the danger is gone.

Unfortunately, it’s possible for victims of secondary drowning to behave in ways that seem normal and that don’t raise any red flags in the eyes of family members. In 2008, for example, a 10-year-old boy tragically died from secondary drowning two hours after inhaling water – but in the meantime, he was able to walk and talk and showed no respiratory distress, Medical News Today reported.

Nevertheless, there are some warning signs that family members can watch out for in children and even adult victims. These include:

  • Breathing changes, specifically shortness of breath or fast and heavy breathing
  • Coughing
  • Changes in face color
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Fever
  • Mood changes
  • Unusual behaviors, such as slurred speech, loss of coordination, or urinary or bowel control issues

Some of these symptoms may sound vague or unimportant, but they could indicate a real problem. If in doubt, always consult a medical professional promptly. It could mean the difference between life and death.

Preventing Swimming Pool Accidents

When it comes to swimming pool safety, we can all contribute. Pool owners should make sure their pools are fenced in and protected with safety locks and gates. At public or commercial pools, especially, there should be plenty of signs to warn swimmers of dangers. Pool users should know how to swim and should never swim alone. Adults should supervise children at all times – even a few seconds without close supervision can prove disastrous when it comes to swimming pool safety. Knowing CPR can make sure you are able to deal with an emergency if it happens.

I don’t mean to alarm parents needlessly, but as a New Jersey personal injury lawyer, I have seen firsthand how a swimming pool accident can ruin lives. There are medical bills that rack up quickly and leave families facing the threat of financial ruin on top of everything else they are going through. Each year, more than 3,500 Americans die from drowning, many of them children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Those who survive drowning may be left with irreversible damage from severe brain injuries. Their lives will never be the same, and neither will their families. Their neurological deficits range from limited mobility to the loss of the ability to speak and communicate. The lifelong medical care required simply to keep these patients alive can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Whenever I hear about any drowning case, whether primary or secondary drowning, I’m always reminded just how dangerous our summertime leisure activities can be. Knowing the dangers, the symptoms, and what to do in case of an emergency is essential for keeping our families safe in the pool.