Norman Regional Health System

Brunette mom plays with her two young girls in their backyard pool

Friday, July 31, 2020

With all the talk about COVID-19, schools opening in-person and virtually, masks, hand sanitizer, etc., it is easy to forget there are still “normal” things to worry about this summer. One of those things is a common safety topic each summer – water safety.

Water safety can mean a lot of different things, but two things that come up often that may be confusing for parents are dry drowning and secondary drowning, Pediatric Hospitalist Dr. Kate Cook said.

What is dry drowning?

Dry drowning is when water hits the vocal cords, causing them to spasm shut, which in return causes increased blood pressure to the lungs and keeps the lungs from doing their job well.

What is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning is when there has been an episode where a child has choked or breathed in some water, but they recovered and seemed to be fine. Then over the course of up-to 24 hours, that little bit of water that entered the lungs can irritate the lining of the lungs and cause the body to produce more fluid in the lungs. This is called pulmonary edema and that is what keeps the body from getting oxygen into the bloodstream.

“It’s scary to think of something that can be happening to your child after they’re out of the water, but the reassuring thing is there are symptoms to warn you of what’s going on,” Dr. Cook said.

What are the signs of secondary drowning?

  • Your child appearing more tired or sleepy than you would expect them to be
  • Your child being more irritable than usual
  • Your child coughing
  • Your child seeming to have trouble breathing – breathing faster and/or using extra muscles to breathe

If you notice any of these signs, you need to have your child evaluated in the Emergency Department. They would examine your child, possibly get a chest X-ray and check their oxygen levels. If any of those things are abnormal, your child may need to spend the night in the hospital to be monitored closely and possibly need some extra oxygen.

How common are dry drowning or secondary drowning?

Dr. Cook said both dry drowning and secondary drowning are very rare. Unfortunately, the things that are not as rare are drownings and non-fatal drownings.

“The tragedy is that a majority of drownings are preventable,” Dr. Cook said.

Pools are an easy way to keep children entertained and this year, your children are probably spending a lot more time at home and in the pool in the backyard.

Here are a few water safety tips:

  • Never leave your child alone in the pool. Swimming requires constant supervision. An adult should always be actively watching children swim.
  • When watching your child swim, put away your phone, tablet, laptop, or book and pay attention. If other adults are around, someone needs to be the designated adult watching the child swimming. Drowning can happen in seconds so it is important to be aware of what’s happening.

“The majority of accidents happen when there are a lot of adults around a pool and everyone assumes that somebody else is watching,” Dr. Cook said.

  • Have an emergency plan in place – knowing even the basics of CPR and having a first aid kit ready can help save your child’s life in a scary moment.
  • Don’t rely on pool toys to keep a child who can’t swim unassisted safe. Only use flotation devises labeled “Coast Guard approved.” If a child needs floaties, swim with them so they’re not alone in the water.
  • Fence off your pool with a fence that is at least four feet high around all four sides with a self-closing and self-latching gate above your child’s reach so it can be blocked off when you’re not available to watch them swim. If possible, also keep the pool covered when not in use.
  • Keep your pool clean and clear so you can easily see what’s happening under the surface.
  • Have fun with your child! Think about swimming with them each time and being actively involved in their water time to help with keeping them safe, while also bonding.

“Swimming can be a very fun healthy activity, as long as we’re safe. So stay alert and have a safe and fun summer,” Dr. Cook said.