Was it a fatal, non-fatal, primary or secondary drowning? Would it matter if I said only 1-2% of drownings are due to a dry and secondary drownings? It would not matter at all if you feel into the 1-2%. You’d want to know everything there is to know about secondary drowning and dry drowning. What is surprising, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, is the leading cause of unintentional deaths in children ages 1-4 is drownings. It is second to children ages 5-14, even after a marked 11% decrease in incidents. Keep in mind this does not include all bodies of water.
Secondary drowning and dry drowning topics always come up this time of year. One because, I’m exposed to water on several fronts and two, potentially all year round. I always have a hard time at the kick off of summer though and this topic has become something I’ve researched to understand myself. It’s confusing.
It is so confusing that doctors are trying to move away from the terminology of secondary drowning and dry drowning.
Dr. David Baglow said it best in Drowning – What to do when you’re faced with the worst case scenario:
Drowning is the impairment of breathing (respiration) due to immersion or submersion in liquid. If you die from this impairment it is ‘fatal drowning’. If this impairment is interrupted it is called ‘non-fatal drowning’. Phrases like ‘near drowning’, ‘dry drowning’ and ‘secondary drowning’ are vague and I will avoid them.
Knowledge is power – Sir Francis Bacon
By definition, dry drowning causes the vocal cords to spasm and close up; no water reaches the lungs. Think of an incident while your child is struggling while swimming or accidentally breathing in fluids. I’m sure you can think of a time your drink went down the “wrong pipe”.
A secondary drowning (can occur up to 24 hours after distress) is when water reaches the lungs. This can lead to pulmonary edema. This might look like an unresponsive swimmer who is revived. The water is in their lungs and potentially diluting the surfactant in their lungs, which is a chemical that keeps the bubbles in the lungs open. In the body’s attempt to help itself it sends fluids, filling the lungs with bodily fluid. There is no room for air.
When I set out to understand this topic I wanted a clear distinction between dry drowning and secondary drowning. I wanted to be able to target the problem and deal with it, should we ever be faced with such an issue.
What I came away with is three things:
- Both dry drowning and secondary drowning are non-medical, general terms.
- Know the signs of a non-fatal drowning.
- Be prepared to respond to a fatal or non-fatal drowning.
Signs of a non-fatal drowning, which dry drowning and secondary drowning have in common:
chest pain, trouble breathing (flared nostrils, gasping, wheezing, etc.), throwing up, low energy, and changes in behavior (irritability, etc.) All of these are signs of hypoxia or caused by a lack of oxygen.
Prepare to respond to a drowning:
- Check for a response
- Designate someone to activate Emergency Medical Systems (EMS)
- If there is no response or breathing begin 30 chest compressions immediately followed by two breaths and so on until revived or medical assistance arrives.
When headed toward the water I am sometimes overcome with fear. It can be paralyzing because I may not be able to protect my family. What would I do if one of my children were to suffer a drowning incident? I remind myself, knowledge is power. (There is a reason we still know he said it in 1597!)
Always be ready to respond to a drowning with the three bullet points above.
The signs of a non-fatal drowning are there to aid you in escalating the incident to a professional. It is important to note: Emergency Rooms are equipped to handle a non-fatal drowning and should be the first choice over a pediatric because of their ability to complete a chest x-ray, start an IV, and monitor the patient.
Be vigilant with children around water, just as you are with them in a busy parking lot.
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