Should Parents Be Concerned About Secondary Drowning After a Swim Lesson?
Survival Swim, Water Safety
Many don’t realize that drowning can occur outside of a swimming pool. It’s a phenomenon known as “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning” that happens when someone breathes in small amounts of water during a struggle. That triggers muscles in the airways to spasm which can make it hard to breathe. There have been many blogs and articles that have gone viral about secondary drowning, warning parents with cautionary tales while misinforming them at the same time. While uncommon, this is a potentially dangerous condition that every parent should know about and we wanted to set the record straight.
A parent approached us with her concern about her child who attends Texas Swim Academy. She asks:
Should we be concerned about dry/secondary drowning following lessons and if not, why?
The reason that we are able to safely teach little ones to survive in the water is because of our lesson protocols and also because of the flap in the back of the throat known as the epiglottis. It opens and closes to let food into the esophagus and air into the trachea. Sometimes things slip into the trachea and the coughing & sputtering is our bodies way of kicking It back up so it doesn’t hit the lungs. Normally our epiglottis works to keep food, water and other solids from entering the trachea, which is part of our respiratory system, not our gastrointestinal system. If someone is conscious, it usually prevents this, or in certain cases, (it went down the wrong way) it causes a cough reflex to dislodge the bead of water. If the child becomes unconscious for any reason then the epiglottis will not work and water can enter the trachea and even the lung. This is known as aspiration. The trauma from aspiration can cause swelling in the tissue of the lungs and airway. A child experiencing aspiration should be seen by a physician. If water enters the lungs and the child isn’t treated, then technically they can succumb even a day or two later.
The recent Facebook account of a three-year old who was in a spa when his mother turned her back is an example of secondary drowning. A spa is NOT a small pool. If the jets are on, the water is circulated by suction. The suction is strong enough to pull a small child under. The bubbles created by the jets make it difficult for a child to look for the top of the water to come up, as they are taught in their lessons. The suction will cause the child to be pulled under repeatedly and choke, allowing water to enter the lungs (aspiration). The child was under for an unknown amount of time (could have been 20 seconds, 30, seconds or even longer) because no one fully witnessed the incident. When his mother actually noticed him, she saw him bobbing up and down in turbulent water, trying to breathe, but rather than breathing air, he aspirated water into his lungs. This child had not had swim lessons, had not been taught breath control, and was DROWNING when he was rescued.
In all cases of secondary drowning, at some point, no one was watching or paying attention to the child. Even when you are in arms length of your child, you can never take your eyes off them, not for a second. Some have even been wearing water wings, which do not prevent a child from putting his mouth underwater. In our lessons we NEVER take our eyes off the child. We establish breath control from the very first lesson, teaching the baby not to “drink” the water. We know that (s)he is not aspirating water and we are aware if the baby is swallowing water because we are right there assessing the baby at all times. That’s the bottom line. In addition we are working for only 15 minutes (sometimes less), have our hands firmly around the baby’s chest and are going slowly, always taking time to allow the child a good breath. We stop often to burp excess air from the tummy and check for breathing.
Occasionally our students swallow water, but the water goes into the stomach, not the lungs. Babies may have wetter diapers in the 2-4 hours after the lessons, and occasionally may spit up the water they swallowed.
We hope that this explanation is helpful for your understanding about secondary drowning. Rest assured, our focus for each lesson is the safety of our students. And the reason we exist is to prevent the tragedy of childhood drowning. To learn more about our programs and instructors, visit our website at www.texasswimacademy.com or give us a call.