What is Secondary Drowning?

Water safety is important. Knowing how to swim and being properly supervised are the most vital steps we can take to prevent drowning. But what about if a child has a near drowning or just inhales water after rough-housing in the pool? You may have cause to be extra careful around the water in order to prevent what is referred to as secondary drowning.

What is Secondary Drowning?

Secondary Drowning is becoming a more common phrase as it pops up in the news more and more often. Let me preface this whole conversation by saying that secondary drowning is very rare—less than 1-2% of all reported drownings are actually caused by secondary drowning. It’s easy to hear media reports about this kind of thing and panic as a result. Resist the urge to do that—just be informed about the issue and keep a watchful eye for it in the future. Awareness is the key here.

Secondary drowning is caused when a child inhales water either during a near-drowning or some kind of struggle in the water. Fluid builds up in the lungs—referred to as pulmonary edema—and can cause significant respiratory stress that may result in fatality.


The window where secondary drowning may occur is anywhere from 1 to 24 hours after leaving a swimming pool or body of water where a child has been swimming. Keep in mind, the person who has inhaled water will probably be up and walking around feeling fine before any significant symptoms settle in. After leaving the pool a child might have a cough, trouble breathing, chest pain, or feel extremely lethargic. Watch for these signs of distress, especially if your kid swallowed a significant amount of water in the pool earlier that day.

Younger children may be harder to diagnose because their symptoms might just appear to be run-of-the-mill irritability from being in the sun and water all day. If they have a distinct personality change or complain of chest pain, they might have water in their lungs. If you suspect this is the case for either older or younger children, it’s best to get to the emergency room as soon as possible where they will be observed by the physicians and possibly treated with oxygen or ventilation. Time is a significant factor in cases of secondary drowning so the sooner you can get them taken in, the better.


  • Try to discourage aggressive rough-housing in the water, particularly any that involve one child dunking another repeatedly. These circumstance are often what lead to inhaling water by accident.
  • Avoid some of these popular baby and toddler swimming lessons as many involve dunking young children underwater, which is not recommended.
  • Use proper flotation devices at all times on children who haven’t become entirely water safe.
  • Even with flotation, nothing is a replacement for a watchful eye. Don’t let kids go into the water without constant adult supervision.
  • Put your kids into swim lessons when they’re the right age. Encourage them to become water safe by learning the five life-saving techniques that will help them be adept swimmers.
  • In addition, make sure your swimmers know their limits, know how to breathe out of their nose underwater, and help them to not panic in open water or the deep end of a pool.
Keep in mind: secondary drowning is not nearly as common as the evening news would have you believe. But it’s important to be informed and aware as a parent or caregiver for small children who will be using the pool this summer.
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