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Secondary Drowning

HOUSTON (September15, 2014)

You may have seen it on the news or have even been asked about it at a summer party.  It is a topic of conversation for many parents this year and one that has earned a considerable amount of attention making both local and national headlines. 

A “secondary drowning” occurs when a person breathes in small amounts of water during a struggle triggering the muscle in their airway to spasm and make breathing difficult.  Fluids then build up in the lungs and can cause various complications including a slowing of the heart as the swimmer’s blood oxygen level drops.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports drowning as the leading cause of death in children ages one to four but does not classify secondary drowning any different than a standard drowning.

“This summer alone we saw 24 drowning and near drownings in the emergency room,” said Robert Lapus, M.D., Assistant Medical Director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.  “While secondary drowning only accounts for one to two percent of drownings, it is important that we are able to recognize the difference between a standard drowning and secondary drowning in order to correctly diagnose as well as help educate parents and caretakers.”

While treated very similar, a secondary drowning can take place anywhere from one to 24 hours after the patient has been out of the water.

Signs and symptoms of secondary drowning are:

  • Chest pain or cough
  • Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in personality such as fussiness/irritability 

These symptoms may be easy to overlook. A child can have any of the above symptoms after a long day in the sun or on the beach.  Additionally, a child can appear fine for several hours before exhibiting any of these symptoms. Similar to a standard drowning, the child must be treated immediately.

“Our goal is to educate parents and caretakers with water safety information so that they do not have to come to our hospital as a result of a drowning or a near-drowning event,” said Cary Cain, Pediatric Trauma Prevention Nurse at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “Prevention is key to saving lives.”

Historically, there is an increase at both Memorial Hermann– Texas Medical Center and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in the number of adults and children admitted for drowning and near-drowning occurrences during the summer.

This year, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital is helping to lead educational efforts in the Houston community by partnering with the Texas Drowning and Prevention Alliance.  “Water Watcher” tags with a five-point pledge for water safety are being distributed in the pediatric emergency room and the pediatric acute care unit (PACU) to parents and caretakers.

For information on Injury Prevention, email our Injury Prevention Coordinators at