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Secondary drowning – what you need to know to keep your family safe

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Everyone knows that drowning is a potential risk when swimming or taking part in other water-related activities. Measures can be taken to help reduce one’s risk of drowning, such as learning to swim, buddy system, wearing life jackets, etc. According to the CDC, unintentional drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of death as a result of an unintentional injury in the United States and third on a worldwide scale. Children aged 14 and under account for about one in five of these deaths.

It’s quite simple to tell when someone is struggling in the water – usually flailing about and/or going underwater and not reaching the surface for a decent period of time (among other signs). However, many people aren’t aware that someone can drown hours after leaving the water. This is a far less common phenomenon known as secondary drowning. It can occur after someone has had a slight struggle in the water, and fluid builds up in the lungs and causes trouble breathing as a result. A person in this situation can appear normal for hours before any signs or symptoms of drowning become apparent. Even more important to emphasize is that it can be fatal if left untreated.

One story has hit mainstream news and social media earlier this summer: Lindsay Kujawa and her toddler son Ronin had an experience where he struggled with a near-drowning for only a matter of 20 seconds. A few hours later, he was displaying some symptoms that were very out of the ordinary. A call was made to Ronin’s pediatrician who urgently referred the child to the ER. With emergency treatment, the boy survived.

The important item to note is that secondary drowning can occur up to 24 hours after a near-drowning incident. The symptoms to be aware of (which can be much more difficult to notice in small children) include:

  • Trouble breathing/shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or cough
  • Sudden behavior/mood changes
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

To keep your family safe this summer, please be sure to stay educated on the different types of drowning and how to identify potential signs and symptoms in different age groups. Swimming lessons are an excellent counter-measure to ensure your family is confident in the water. Also, be sure that at least one person at each gathering is skilled at CPR – you never know when that one person can save your family.

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