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Setting the Record Straight About Drowning

Posted 6/7/2018 by UHBlog

Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children ages 1 – 4. If you have questions about getting certified in CPR, contact us.

Young Family Relaxing In Swimming Pool

Each summer, scary stories about dry drowning and “secondary drowning” start making the rounds on social media. Headlines make it seem common that children can suddenly die, hours or days after inhaling some pool water, without any other symptoms.

“As a parent, that idea can be incredibly scary,” says pediatric emergency medical specialist Jerri Rose, MD. “But it’s important to realize these cases are extremely rare. In some cases that have been reported, it’s not completely clear that the causes of death were related to drowning.”

Indeed, medical establishments like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Red Cross do not recognize “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning” as actual medical terms.

“Among experts on drowning, the term they use is just ‘drowning,’ with no differentiation between dry or wet,” says Dr. Rose.

Drowning happens when people have breathing difficulty and oxygen is eventually not delivered to the vital organs as a result of being submerged in water or other liquid.

Many times when you swallow a little bit of pool water, you cough it up and you’re fine. In rare cases, the inhalation of water into the respiratory system – known as aspiration – can cause spasms of the breathing passages, preventing air from entering the lungs. This is what media sometimes refer to as dry drowning. In other cases, water can be inhaled down into the lungs and cause severe inflammation. If left untreated, this inflammation can lead to respiratory failure. This is what is sometimes called secondary drowning. In both cases, however, people will display symptoms – including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, chest discomfort, lethargy and possibly even decreased consciousness, says Dr. Rose.

“If your child aspirates water, loses consciousness or has any problem breathing after being in the water, he or she should undergo a full medical examination either at an emergency department or by their doctor,” Dr. Rose says.

However, what you should focus on most, especially as warmer weather rolls around, is general overall safety around water, says Dr. Rose. According to the CDC, drowning is responsible for more deaths among children under age 5 than any other cause, except congenital anomalies (birth defects). Among children ages 1 to 4, drowning occurs most often in swimming pools.

To prevent drowning, Dr. Rose recommends implementing these three safety steps:

  1. Make sure your pool is protected. All swimming pools should be completely surrounded by fencing with a secure gate and self-closing latch, Dr. Rose says. The fence should be at least four feet high, and the latch should be out of a small child’s reach.
  2. Keep a close eye on your child. “Adults should always be within an arm’s length of their young children in the water,” she says.
    Also, don’t multitask.
    “Adults shouldn’t talk on the phone, text, socialize or try to do housework while responsible for supervising kids in the pool,” Dr. Rose says. “Direct supervision is so important, even if your child knows how to swim. Swimming lessons are useful, but they don't drown-proof children.”
  3. Enforce rest periods. “Children can sometimes become overtired without realizing it,” she says. “That can put them at risk for drowning.”
    Caregivers should enforce frequent out-of-the-water rest periods for children when they are swimming.

Even with these precautions, accidents occur. During a drowning emergency, you should first and foremost get the child out of the water immediately and call for help. If there is anyone else around, have them call 9-1-1 as soon as possible, says Dr. Rose, who recommends keeping a phone and safety equipment near the pool area at all times.

Once the child is out of the water, “check and see if they are breathing on their own and whether a pulse is present,” she says.

If not, Dr. Rose says you should begin rescue breathing and CPR until medical help arrives.

Jerri Rose, MD is a pediatric emergency medicine specialist, program director of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellowship and director of Pediatric Subspecialty Education at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with any University Hospitals healthcare provider online.

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