Bigger Kids

Secondary drowning: What you need to know

A condition called secondary drowning is putting parents on high alert.

a little girl swimming with goggles on Photo: iStockphoto

A dip in the pool or lake on a hot summer day is a fun and refreshing activity for many families. But, as we all know, it can be dangerous, too. Drownings in children can occur in less than 30 seconds and in less than half an inch of water, making the need to closely and constantly monitor children in the water common knowledge.

Still, drowning is sadly one of the most common causes of accidental death in children ages one to four. But what if your child has a near-drowning experience or gulps a bit too much water after an unexpected submerge? They're OK, right? While they might seem that way after the initial dunk, a condition called secondary drowning is putting parents on high alert.

Read more: 10 water safety tips>

What is secondary drowning?

Though rare, secondary drowning can be fatal if warning symptoms are ignored. Anytime someone (children and adults alike) inhales even a small gush of water (pool, lake or ocean) it can irritate the lungs and cause swelling. Usually very little water is present in the lungs when secondary drowning occurs, but the small amount of liquid is enough to hinder the lungs ability to provide oxygen to the bloodstream.

What symptoms to look out for

If your child has had a near drowning, or perhaps swallowed too much water, keep a close eye out for the symptoms of secondary drowning and take them to the hospital immediately. Symptoms can even take between one and 72 hours to appear.

Here's what to look for:

  • lethargy or extreme fatigue
  • difficulty breathing
  • irritability or mood swings
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • persistent cough
  • fever

What can I do?


There is good news! Going to the hospital promptly is your best defence. Doctors will closely monitor your child and, when caught early, should be able to treat any issues by administering oxygen and removing fluids through diuretics. Ignoring the symptoms or waiting too long to seek treatment is, tragically, when secondary drowning can turn fatal. If a near drowning has occurred and your child is showing any of these symptoms, don't delay in getting them checked out.


Like most things, prevention is key. Try enforcing water rules the same way you would about car safety—holding hands in the parking lot, looking both ways before crossing the street—with poolside and water safety. Educating children as early as you can about the dangers of the water and putting kids in swimming lessons as early as possible will help them to develop into strong swimmers and be comfortable in and around water.

This article was originally published on May 01, 2018

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Amy is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto, Ontario. Her work can also be found in publications like Chatelaine, Toronto Life and The Globe and Mail