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You may think your child is safe after a near-drowning, but secondary drowning, which presents hours later, is still a threat.

Many parents, I’m sure, have had a heart-stopping moment of panic when their child struggles in the water. Maybe he’s gone under for too long, or sucked in water instead of air. Most of the time, children cough up the water, breathe again, and you relax because everything is going to be fine. Except it isn’t always, there is always the threat if secondary drowning.

Secondary drowning or dry drowning are unofficial terms, but refer to drowning that happens after someone has left the water. Usually the child, or adult, will have had a near-drowning experience or struggle in the water, sucking water into their lungs. Craig Lambinon, media spokesman at the National Sea Rescue Institute, explains that secondary drowning occurs when this water causes the lungs to swell, making you feel like you are drowning again. The lungs can’t produce enough oxygen, which makes it difficult to breathe. This usually happens four to six hours after the victim has been in the water.

Learn to swim at an early age

Wait and watch

Lambinon recommends that you go to hospital for observation after a near-drowning. If symptoms develop, quick treatment is essential. If you don’t go to a hospital, Lambinon advises that the victim be observed for at least six hours after he has left the water. Children especially are tired after such experiences and want to go to sleep. Observe them, says Lambinon, as symptoms may develop while they are asleep, and they may never wake up. Symptoms to look out for include difficulty breathing, wheeziness, chest pain, persistent coughing, a fever and a change in behaviour or drop in energy level. If you notice any of these symptoms, call an ambulance and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Water safety

Secondary drowning isn’t common, but it does happen. And while it can happen to anyone, children are more at risk. Dominique Smythe, a swimming school instructor in Durban, says children who know how to swim are still at risk, but the threat is greater for children between the ages of one and four. Risk is increased when children and adults aren’t water safe, adds Smythe; rough play around water, diving into shallow pools, open access to water, and a lack of education and supervision all add to the risk. Teaching children to swim is one way to help prevent any type of drowning. Smythe recommends starting lessons between the ages of one and four years old. “Children five to 14 years old need to be water safe and be able to swim themselves out of dangerous situations,” says Smythe. It’s important not to overestimate your child’s swimming ability.

Read more about Sun and Water safety

Preventing water accidents

  • Supervise children around any water; children can drown in just a few centimetres of water.
  • Ensure your pool is fenced off and has a net covering it when not in use.
  • Pack away toys, pool equipment or other objects over which someone could trip.
  • Educate children about pool safety.
  • Warn children about the dangers of rough play, running around pools, doing flips into the water and diving into shallow water. Also be vigilant

Tamlyn Vincent