What You Need to Know About Out-of-Water Drowning

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Tips for spotting post-swimming symptoms

Summer swimming may be dangerous even after your day at the pool. Drowning dangers exist long after you’re out of the water.

Also called “delayed drowning,” secondary drowning can happen when someone breathes in small amounts of water during a struggle in the water. A buildup of fluid in the lungs prevents proper oxygen flow. Side effects don’t appear until hours or days later, usually within the next 48 hours.

Dry drowning, which is different from secondary drowning, can happen from jumping into a pool or during forced immersion. Water doesn’t get into your lungs, but instead irritates your vocal cords and throat. This irritation can cause spasms and block the airway. Side effects typically appear shortly after swimming ends.

Both dry drowning and secondary drowning are extremely rare, but be on alert if someone has had a “close call” to drowning in the water. They may appear fine once out of the water for a while, but it’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms afterward, says Greg Newman, DO, medical director of Ascension Providence Express Care. Ascension Providence is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

What to look for

Newman said summer is the busiest time of year for drowning cases; secondary drowning and dry drowning are less commonly recognized risks.

The most common symptoms to look out for after swimming is trouble breathing. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath or panicked attempts at breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Coughing

It can be hard to spot some of these symptoms, especially in younger kids who might already be fussy or tired after a long day in the water. If you think someone is having these symptoms, head for the ER, because time is of the essence when it comes to drowning.

A message for parents: Pay Attention!

When kids are near water, it’s important to closely supervise them at all times. Adults who are watching kids should avoid all distractions, like talking on the phone, playing games or drinking alcohol, according to the CDC.

Drowning in general is the second leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1-14 years old, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.