Kids Can Drown Even After Leaving the Pool

How drowning can happen, even back on land

inner tube floating in pool water

For parents enjoying time at the pool with their kids, it’s a frightening prospect — the possibility that a child can drown after getting out of the water.

Two phenomena can cause atypical drowning — dry drowning and secondary drowning. Both can occur after a child has struggled in the water and is rescued, and both can cause brain injury, respiratory problems or even death.

“This is why every child who has fallen into the water or experienced a near-drowning should be taken to the emergency room immediately,” says pediatrician Elumalai Appachi, MD. “If we can intervene quickly, it’s possible for a child to recover.”

Dry drowning

“In a normal drowning, a swimmer will aspirate a lot of water into their lungs as they struggle in the water,” says Dr. Appachi. “In dry drowning, the larynx goes shut as a protective response. No water gets in, but no air gets in either.”

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It’s called a laryngospasm — a constriction of muscles in the airway. The longer it takes for the larynx to relax, the longer the body is deprived of oxygen.

“Being deprived of oxygen for even a few minutes is fatal,” says Dr. Appachi. “Kids with heart defects and respiratory difficulties like asthma are at particular risk.”

Secondary drowning

Secondary drowning occurs when water is aspirated into the lungs and collects there as a person struggles in the water. That collection of fluid in the lungs is called pulmonary edema, which causes difficult or rapid breathing that can make a “crackle” sound.

“Within an hour, you will start seeing those respiratory difficulties,” Dr. Appachi says. “Secondary drowning can be severe enough that a child can end up on a ventilator.”

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Watch closely, rescue quickly

The younger the child, the more closely he or she needs to be watched in the water, says Dr. Appachi. In the case of babies and toddlers, for instance, just a few inches of bath water can be enough to cause them to drown.

“Watch them closely and rescue them quickly,” he says. “Even if they are submerged for a minute or two, they should go to the hospital immediately.”

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  • SomethingProfound

    By way of minor correction, when water is inhaled into the lungs it’s aspiration, not edema. Pulmonary edema occurs from within.

    • Sal King

      Thank you Dr Quinn.

      • SomethingProfound

        You’re welcome smarta_s. Make fun of intelligence all you want. In the end you’ll know your place.

    • Dr. Q

      Well aspiration is the act of inhaling the water. Pulmonary edema simply refers to a buildup of water in the lung’s air sacs.

      • SomethingProfound

        Where I live and work that would be “aspirate”, to differentiate the origin of the fluid, whether water, orange juice, or pudding… edema is generally reserved for bodily fluid entering/collecting in the alveoli.

        • Nana

          people aspirate on their own blood, vomit and saliva

  • Debbie Krause Nelsen

    I need surgery to correct kyphosis – extensive & scoliosis. I have CMT , a HSMN &fibromyalgia c major problems in my nerve conduction study
    Is there someone who has done many surg fusing so many spaces with great success rate.I’m 59 & very twisted- as in spine &posture. I have a lot of pain& fatigue but still lead a busy life.I always take pride in my appearance
    I’m 5’1″&115-120#. Its starting to get to me, now that I have a granddgt . Didn’t realize how bad back was until I carried her around. She is 16# only . We are buying home c inground pool & want to be note active & have posture be better. Please let me know .I’m very familiar c CC

  • protective grandma

    My grandson is 5yrs old. We have a pool that’s only 12×30. He loves the water but I keep reading all these articles about kids drowning after they are out of the pool. He likes to throw things in the water, then go under and get them. Got me worried now, should I be?

    • Med. is my major

      No. Don’t be worried. If he’s going under to get them he is inhaling lots of air before he goes under. But you still need to watch him closely incase he swallows water while he’s under.

  • Dena

    My grandson had dry drowning last summer at Ymca camp , he was hospitalized 4 days , it’s very dangerous! He had bilateral pulmonary Edema .
    asparation can cause pneumonia but depending on the depth of aspartate of pool water in the lungs it can and does cause pulmonary edema .