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Birmingham Parent magazine

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What is "Secondary" Drowning?

By Carol Muse Evans

You may have heard stories in the news recently about children drowning after leaving the water, called  “secondary,” or “dry” drowning.  Can this really happen? Should you be concerned?

“Yes,” says Dr. Heather Mitchell, Emergency Medicine physician at Children’s of Alabama, “but it is extremely rare.”

While thousands of children drown each year in the United States, Mitchell says, only 1 to 2 percent of drownings occur as secondary – after a child leaves the water.  “Secondary drowning can happen hours after a child has had a near-drowning event in the water,” Mitchell explains.  “It occurs when a large amount of weather gets into the lungs and edema (fluid buildup in lungs) takes over later.

 “The three big symptoms of distress with fluid in the lungs are breathing difficulty, fatigue and mental or personality changes,” Mitchell adds. “But this happens when the child has taken in a large amount of water, having a near-drowning experience where they were under water for a longer period of time and/or had to be resuscitated, or had a brief period when they were not breathing.”

What should you do if you are concerned?  “A worried parent is always right,” Mitchell points out.  While there is no particular age susceptible to secondary drowning, you see it more frequently in children who are young and cannot express how they are feeling.  If in doubt, always seek the help of a medical professional, Mitchell added. 

There is no major treatment if large amounts of water are found in the lungs, she adds, but the child would be watched, given oxygen, etc. until the fluid passed.
-           - Carol Muse Evans is publisher of Birmingham Parent.

·         For more information about general water safety, visit

·         For more information about “secondary” drowning, visit

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