Near Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Posted by on Jun 1, 2014 in Clinic, Health | Comments Off on Near Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Near Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Do you know what “Near Drowning” looks like?

Watch this video and see if you can identify the child that is about to drown before the lifeguard does. Drowning itself is quick and silent, although it may be preceded by distress which is more visible. A person drowning is unable to shout or call for help, or seek attention, as they cannot obtain enough air. The instinctive drowning response is the final set of autonomic reactions in the 20 – 60 seconds before sinking underwater, and to the untrained eye can look similar to calm safe behavior. Lifeguards and other persons trained in rescue learn to recognize drowning people by watching for these instinctive movements.

A few years ago I read this on Mario Vittone’s website, a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have been the father that almost got in the way of his drowning daughter.

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television.


  • Thousands of people drown in the United States each year.
  • Most drownings occur within a short distance of safety. Immediate action and first aid can prevent death.
  • A person who is drowning usually cannot shout for help. Be alert for signs of drowning.
  • Children can drown in only a few inches of water.
  • It may be possible to revive a drowning person even after a long period under water, especially if the person is young and was in very cold water.
  • Suspect an accident if you see someone in the water fully clothed. Watch for uneven swimming motions, which is a sign that the swimmer is getting tired. Often the body sinks, and only the head shows above the water.

A near drowning event doesn’t end at the pool. There’s a complication that’s often missed and can have a fatal outcome.

Secondary Drowning

Secondary drowning occurs when small amounts of water are sucked into the lungs. Review of the medical literature reveals that this can occur in as many as 5% of near drowning events. Its a rapid deterioration in the ability to oxygenate blood and often has a late onset (up to 48 hours later).

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