Expert warns of secondary drowning, water risks

Updated 7/6/2014 8:07 AM

As summer heats up, experts are warning parents, children and swimmers of all ages to be careful in the water, especially after recent drownings.

Even when someone appears to have escaped drowning, there's need for caution.


Secondary drowning can cause death hours after a near-drowning experience if not caught in time, said Jacqueline Corboy, a physician of pediatric and emergency medicine at Lurie Children's Hospital who also is on staff at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

This lesser-known phenomenon is a rare but dangerous occurrence.

"When someone gets submerged unexpectedly, often the first thing they try to do is take a breath and the water gets down into their lungs," Corboy said. "Most of the time they will cough or spit and think everything is fine, but that's not true for a certain number of people."

For some, the fluid in the lungs can build up, pneumonia can set in and death can occur hours or even days after the water incident, she said.

"We recommend that anybody who has a submergence experience, even if it was just moments, come in for emergency treatment," Corboy said. "Even if you've pulled them out and they are sputtering and coughing, but then seem fine, take them in and get it checked out."

A patient who is suffering from secondary drowning, will be admitted and given antibiotics and supplemental oxygen or, in extreme cases, be put on a ventilator until the lungs recover.

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Warning signs include difficulty breathing, persistent coughing, labored or fast breathing and excessive sleepiness, she said.

Secondary drowning can happen after being in swimming pools, lakes or even bathtubs.

The number of people who suffer from secondary drowning each year is unknown, because those deaths are often still listed with drowning as the cause of death.

A number of water deaths have already hit the region this summer.

In June alone:

• An 86-year-old South Barrington woman drowned in her family's pool.

• A 77-year-old Lake Villa man drowned in his swimming pool

• A 4-year-old boy drowned at a St. Charles country club.

• A 3-year-old from Rockford drowned in a relative's pool in Morris


• Two brothers, ages 8 and 9, drowned in a pit full of water just blocks from their Hobart, Indiana, home.

• A 6-year-old Bridgeview boy died while swimming at a park district pool in the South suburbs.

• A 49-year-old Melrose Park man died while boating near Johnsburg.

• A 20-year-old Morris man died while canoeing in the Kankakee River.

"Vigilance is the most important thing, especially with young children," Corboy said.

Corboy said parents need to be constantly aware anytime their children are near or in bodies of water. Make sure they are always within arms' reach, wearing flotation devices and never left unattended for even a moment, she said.

Drowning itself is the most common cause of death for children under 4, Corboy said.

"It only takes seconds to breathe in a mouthful of water," Corboy said. "Have fun, but be careful."

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