Safe Pool Play: Minimize the Risk of Dry Drowning

Family playing in a pool

Let’s say you are at a pool party with your children and you are, as always, vigilant watching them. Yes, you taught them to swim from a young age. You swim well, and know your first aid. Still, so much can go wrong with rambunctious young people. So you watch.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is among the top 10 causes of mortality for children and young people worldwide. In the United States, drowning is the 10th most common cause of unintentional death. In 2013 in the US, drowning was the leading cause of injury mortality for children one to four-years old, and it was second only to motor vehicle collisions for children ages 5 to 14 years. Statically you do have cause to worry.

So you are at the pool party and notice that your child, in a game of “dunking,” comes up from under the water out of breath and coughing. She says she just swallowed a little water. She says she is fine. Should you be concerned? Yes, yes you should be concerned, and not just about the risks for drowning.

Water in the Lungs

The terms “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are medically known as submersion injuries. Although these terms are used interchangeably, they are different conditions. In dry drowning, someone, usually a child, takes in a small amount of water through his or her nose and/or mouth, and it causes spasm of the vocal cords shutting off the airway causing difficulty breathing. In secondary drowning, a little bit of water gets into the lungs and causes an inflammation or swelling in the region of the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide interchange, making it difficult to breathe.

Where as dry drowning usually happens soon after the injury, secondary drowning can be delayed up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress. Both can cause trouble breathing and, in a worst-case scenarios, death. Remember that these injuries can occur at the beach, pool or in a bath tub.

Hopefully you were there to see the incident but usually you may not have seen your child in their initial distress.
So what are the signs of these rare but scary injuries? What should you watch for?

Coughing is the most pronounces sign. It is usually a persistent coughing and increased work of breathing. You may observe nasal flaring and use of the muscles of the chest and shoulders to help pull in air into the lungs. Excessive fatigue and sleepiness after a water injury should make you concerned. Vomiting may be a sign of the inflammation in the lungs. The child may develop a fever. The lack of oxygen exchange in an inflamed lung and build up of carbon dioxide in the blood may cause a change in the child’s behavior. They may become confused. Any of these or a combination of them should cause you to seek medical attention immediately.

Act Fast

So what should you do?  If you suspect a submersion injury of a child or adult you should take immediate action. First of all, call your primary care provider or pediatrician and explain the circumstance. If the symptoms are severe, 911 should be called. Getting the individual to the nearest Emergency Room should be your top priority. I would not recommend an Urgent Care facility for the severe cases. They may not have all the equipment necessary for a successful outcome.

Yes, summer is in the air. Fun to be had playing in the water. Just remember that a teaspoon of water in the wrong place could cause a rare but devastating consequence. So be vigilant.

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