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Knowing the signs of secondary drowning could save your child's life

Deborah Cruz is a SheKnows parenting expert and blogger at The TRUTH About Motherhood, which she calls a place of "humor, support, honesty and integrity." Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Drowning doesn't always look like in the movies; in fact, it almost never does.

young boy drowing

Photo credit: Laurence Monneret/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Have you ever heard of secondary drowning? Sounds like drowning after the fact, right? Well, that's because in a way, it is. I know, just what we parents needed, one more thing to worry about. But in this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss. We need to know what to look for. It could mean the difference between life and death.

Summer is upon us and, if you are anything like us, that means hours and hours spent at the pool. Secondary drowning technically happens while your child is swimming but you might not see the effects for hours. It's also called parking lot drowning. It's scary, but you have to know what to look for in order to get the help your child might need to survive it.

In secondary drowning, a swimmer accidentally inhales water; this could happen from a near-drowning accident or just jumping in and swallowing a little bit of water. It doesn't take a lot.

Drowning doesn't always look like in the movies; in fact, it almost never does. There are not a lot of flailing arms and pomp and circumstance. It's nearly impossible to alert anyone to help you when you are drowning. Your instinct is to leverage your body out of the water long enough to catch a breath. Your main concern is to get a breath and to stay alive; finding someone to save you is secondary. Survival is the objective; this is not something you have time to mull over and think about. It is a primal instinct.

It just takes a few seconds. It doesn't matter how it happens. Once the water gets past the vocal cords, the secondary drowning sequence is initiated.

With regular drowning, you are somewhat aware of the danger and treat it immediately and with a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, with secondary drowning, everything looks fine. You will be fooled into thinking that nothing is wrong and, in effect, you might miss the signs of imminent death. Symptoms usually appear one to 24 hours after water has been inhaled. Some symptoms to look for if you suspect your child has taken water in are persistent coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, lethargy, fever and mood change.

If water is left in the swimmer's lungs it will cause swelling. If the swelling is caught early enough, oxygen and diuretics can be administered and positive air pressure can be used to remove the fluid from the lungs, but once the lungs have filled with water, they cannot exchange oxygen to and from the blood. This will cause the heart to slow as the victim's blood oxygen level drops. If left untreated, complications like pulmonary edema, hypoxia, respiratory/cardiac arrest and even death can occur.

Just inhaling the pool water can cause a chemical pneumonitis, which is an inflammation of the lungs as a reaction to the harmful chemicals in the pool water. The point is this: Watch your children closely when they are in the pool or beach, because it only takes a second and a teaspoon of water to drown to death, and sometimes you won’t even know that your child has drowned until hours later when you put them to bed and they never wake up. No parent should ever have to experience that heartbreak.

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