Katie's Baby Drowning
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Little kid playing in the water.

July 05, 2017

The tragedy of dry and secondary drowning

Know how to protect your children this summer

Until last month I had never heard about dry and secondary drowning. As a parent who has been actively seeking to educate myself on water safety for my family, I was alarmed to learn about the tragic consequences that can occur long after a water submersion injury or event. I always thought that drowning happens immediately. I have seen plenty of children and adults rescued by lifeguards at the beach, lake or pool. These near-drowning incidents have occurred quickly in the water. I did not know that a drowning death could happen hours or even days after submersion. That was, until I read about a little boy named Frankie.

Last month I heard about the tragic loss of this four-year-old boy from Texas. Several days after swimming, he passed away because, unbeknownst to his family, water had entered his lungs. According to reports he had not been feeling well but it seemed like he was battling a common stomach bug. It was not until he stopped breathing that his family realized something was terribly wrong. By that point it was too late.

Any story about the death of a young child is heartbreaking. I was affected upon hearing about Frankie because I feel deeply sorry for his loss of life and his grieving family. I am also grateful that they are sharing their sad story because it can help prevent such a tragedy from happening to another family.

I now join the ranks of many parents who are wondering about these lesser-known, delayed injuries and fatalities from water. Because of the media coverage of the tragic accident, some parents are paying closer attention to their own children after swimming to ensure they do not realize the same sad fate. As we continue to enjoy summer, with many of us in or around water, I wanted to share what I have learned about dry and secondary drowning in an effort to spread the word about what to look for and how to protect our children.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, dry drowning is when a person’s larynx closes as a protective response to water submersion, cutting off air and oxygen. Secondary drowning occurs when water gets into the lungs and collects there resulting in pulmonary edema, which impedes breathing. In both, symptoms can begin immediately or may not start to show for as long as 48 hours after being submerged in water.

Parents Magazine offers a comprehensive understanding of dry and secondary drowning, which I have found really helpful in increasing my knowledge. Based on input from a number of medical professionals, here is a synopsis of symptoms they recommend watching out for in an effort to protect your children from a drowning fatality. Take your child to the nearest emergency room, urgent care facility or to their pediatrician if any of the following occurs after being in water:

• The child is saved from a drowning incident or a water submersion injury.

• The child is coughing and having a hard time breathing normally.

• The child goes from fully energized to extremely tired, confused or forgetful (do not let him fall asleep until he gets checked out).

• The child is nauseous or vomiting in the minutes, hours and days after.

I have taken my son to the pediatrician for the smallest of red flags. If something seems off about my baby boy I never hesitate to seek medical attention. So it should go without saying that if I notice any hint of these dry and secondary drowning symptoms I will proceed to the nearest emergency room immediately. I operate as an overly-cautious mother because my son’s safety and well-being are of paramount concern to me. Each and every time, I would rather be safe than sorry.

It is prudent to be alert and aware of all those around you when in and around the water. Keep in mind that babies and toddlers are not the only ones susceptible to dry and secondary drowning. This can happen to older children and adults, too. My husband and I were swimming in a lake in Wisconsin a couple of years ago when a woman started to struggle about 20 feet from the dock. Even though lifeguards were on duty, it was my husband who quickly responded to her calls for help. He helped her to the dock where the guards pulled her up. I have no doubt that my husband prevented this woman from serious injury or even death that day. Sometimes a stranger can become a hero.

No matter the age, I recommend keeping some general water safety tips in mind when in and around water:

• Whether it is a lifeguard, a parent or a friend – someone nearby should know CPR.

• Never leave children unsupervised near water.

• Keep an eye on adults who are not proficient swimmers.

• Babies and toddlers should be kept at arm's length.

• Don't rely on inflatable or foam toys to keep children or anyone afloat.

• Learn how to swim and teach children.

• Don't drink alcohol when in or around water and when supervising swimming children.