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Summer PSA: Drowning and Secondary Drowning. Do You Know The Facts?

Once a year I write about the signs of drowning and secondary drowning (who knew that was a thing?!) because A) Most people think drowning looks like the Hollywood version of struggling about in the water and B) the post serves to educate  or refresh all of us as we enter into the summer season of swimming.

Summer PSA: Drowning and Secondary Drowning. Do You Know The Facts?

Please take the time to read this important post and if you’re inclined, please share with parents and grandparents, uncles and aunties, brothers and sisters; it may save a life.

What Does Drowning Look Like?

Do you think drowning looks like thrashing about in the water, yelling, kicking and dramatic splashing?  You’d be wrong. Doesn’t look a thing like that. And I know, because I once came thisclose to drowning.

When I was about seven, I was in a hotel pool with my older brother who could swim. My swimming skills were just being honed, but as most kids who are just learning, I thought I could swim.

Look at me; I’m swimming!

My brother walked out into the deep end, where he started swimming. I walked out into the deep end, where the bottom of the pool dropped off, and started drowning. Both my parents were within 10 feet of me and I was in plain sight. I started slipping under and couldn’t control my movements. I still remember how scared I was and I could hear my father saying, “Patti, we don’t pretend we’re drowning.”

I couldn’t get my head above the water enough to scream for help; I wasn’t playing.

As I was about to black out, I saw my father dive into the pool, wristwatch and all (back then, daddies always took off their watches before getting near water because nothing was waterproof) and pulled me up over the surface of the water. I remember choking, crying, and frantically grabbing for him. Even though I was young, I thought I was going to die in that pool with everyone thinking I was misbehaving. It’s a memory that has vividly stayed with me.

When I was calmer, my parents asked me why I had followed my brother into the deep end. I told them that I didn’t know the pool’s bottom dropped away. I saw my brother heading to one end, and as all pesky little sisters do, I followed. That simple.

That was the summer I learned to swim.

This is what drowning looks like:

This one is more graphic:

Signs someone may be drowning:

* They are unusually quiet, especially children. One needs to breath to make noise.

* Hyperventilating or gasping.

* Can’t wave or use arms in a normal manner. A drowning person instinctively puts their arms out to the side, trying to push themselves above the water line. A child may put their arms in front of them, like trying to climb a ladder.

* Eyes may be closed or glassy and unfocused.

* Head is low in the water, possible tilted back with mouth open, although children’s head may fall forward.

* Vertical in water, not using legs. It may appear the drowning person is dog-paddling, but going nowhere.

* Victim may try to roll over on back.

* Hair may be over forehead.

If you think someone may be in trouble, the easiest and best thing to do is to yell to them, “Are you alright?” If you do not get a response, even if it looks like they aren’t drowning, if you get a blank stare, the stats say you have 30 seconds to get to them.

When a person is drowning they are physiologically unable to help themselves. Their bodies are trying to save them through actions that are of no use (like trying to climb out of the water) and because they need a good breath to speak, they can’t because their bodies are overriding that secondary function in favor of utilizing oxygen to sustain life. They are incapable of calling out for help.

The bottom line: drowning people can’t stop themselves from drowning.

This is why everyone should know the signs.

As our summer gears up for lots of water-themed fun, make sure everyone you know takes care of their required summer reading: know what drowning looks like.

What is Secondary Drowning?

* Water or other fluid enters lungs during a struggle, which in turn triggers the muscles in their airway to spasm and makes breathing difficult…fluid builds up in the lungs, called pulmonary edema, after a near-drowning incident. The fluid causes trouble breathing.

NOTE: This can happen in any body of water, bathtub included.

* Person is conscious.

* Person may insist after much coughing that they are fine, may walk around and behave normally, but the fluid may stay in their lungs and impair breathing and cause drowning a few hours later, IE secondary drowning.  Onset is usually rapid and characterized by a latent period of one to 48 hours of relative respiratory well-being.

What are the Signs of Secondary Drowning?

* Coughing after ingesting water.

* Possible pain in chest upon inhaling.

* Trouble breathing or catching their breath.  Can be characterized by fast and heavy breathing.

* Lethargy and extreme fatigue

* Change in mood or behavior.

While secondary drowning is not common…it amounts to only 1%-2% of all drownings…you should be aware and proactive whenever you and your loved ones are swimming.

Small children will be harder to “eye-ball diagnose” because after a full day of fun and sun their mood usually changes no matter if they have been swimming or not.  If you know they have ingested water and they exhibit other symptoms, an ER visit is not out of the question.  Secondary drowning is treatable, but can be deadly if you wait too long.

I hope this post has been useful. Again, please feel free to share.

Happy safe swimming, my babies, and be safe out there.


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Elle Spann

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

thanks for this! summer fun shouldn't include these issues:( elle

Patti Tucker

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Be safe!

Colleen Pence

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Thank you for this vital reminder, Patti. As we head into summer, we all need to be informed about these signs and be on alert when our kids (and others) are in the water.

Patti Tucker

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Thank you for sharing, Colleen. Such vital info.

Leslie @ My Kitchen Is Open

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Oh man, I was 5 and almost drowned in 2 feet of water. Scariest moment of my life. I'm almost 40 and it's still a huge fear. Thanks for the information- great post!

Patti Tucker

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Drowning is sneaky and doesn't look like we have been conditioned to think it looks like. Thank you for sharing, Leslie.

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