A little girl swimming in a pool with water wings.
Healthy Living

Delayed Drowning: What Is It and Signs to Look For

Jun 11 2020

There are few things better than spending a warm summer day at the pool, lake or beach. And if you have kids, you know how important water safety is on those fun-filled days.

As you watch your kids closely while they splash and swim, you make sure they don’t get hurt or drown. However, what you may not know is there’s still potential danger after your family gets out of the water. It’s called delayed drowning or, as the medical community refers to it, a submersion injury.

While this situation is rare, it is very dangerous. All parents and caregivers of children need to know what delayed drowning is as well as what signs to look for.

What is delayed drowning?  

There are different types of delayed drowning that can occur a couple of different ways.

Dry drowning typically happens just after getting out of the water. Water enters through the nose or mouth and gets into the airway. This causes a spasm, or muscle twitch. The airway closes, making it difficult or impossible for the child to breathe.

In the case of secondary drowning, water gets into the lungs and causes swelling as well as inflammation. The child’s lungs are unable to carry oxygen to the rest of their body, making it difficult or impossible to breathe. This typically happens within 24 hours or so of being in the water.

Unfortunately, both types of delayed drowning can lead to death.

Six potential signs of delayed drowning

While delayed drowning can happen to any child who swims, from infants to teens, it’s a rare problem.  Even so, as a parent or caregiver, it’s important to know what signs and symptoms to look for.

They include:

  • Coughing: It may be sudden and persistent.
  • Chest pain: Difficulty breathing can cause pain in the chest where your child’s lungs are.
  • Irritability and forgetfulness: When your child’s brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it can impact their mood.
  • Low energy: Your child may seem more tired and sluggish than normal if they aren’t getting enough oxygen.
  • Vomiting: This may be due to persistent coughing, lack of oxygen in the body, inflammation or the body working hard to breathe.
  • Breathing hard or trouble breathing: You may notice that your child’s nostrils flare, their chest heaves and their body shows signs that it’s working extra-hard to breathe.

If your child shows any of these symptoms after swimming, it’s important to see a doctor right away. If your child was submerged in the water at all and needed rescue, you should also see a doctor to make sure everything is okay.

Preventing delayed drowning

The best way to prevent delayed drowning is by following regular summer safety tips when your child is in or around water.

Never let children swim without supervision. When they are in the water, assign at least one adult to be a “water watcher.” This individual should be paying constant attention to the children, avoiding any in-depth conversations and not looking at their cell phone. It is also a good idea for parents to make sure they are CPR-certified.

If you have a pool at home, make sure there is a fence around it on all four sides. The fence should be at least four feet high, non-climbable and should have a gate that closes and latches on its own. Pool covers, door alarms, window guards and pool alarms are all great additional layers of protection for children.

Consider teaching your kids to swim as early as possible to prevent all types of drownings and water injuries. If your child isn’t a confident swimmer, they should always wear a flotation device in the water. And of course, if you notice that your child is having issues breathing or acting out of sorts while swimming, you’ll want to act immediately.

It’s also important to keep in mind that babies, toddlers and younger children can suffer from delayed drowning and regular drowning in smaller amounts of water. Buckets, bathtubs, kiddie pools and any other water-filled items you may have around the house could be dangerous. Don’t leave your child around them without watching them.

Want to learn more about summer safety for kids? Schedule a video visit with a Bon Secours provider. We can answer your questions and provide helpful tips to keep your child safe.  

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