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Type of drowning kills hours after submersion

Wednesday - 6/18/2014, 6:06am  ET

swimming pool (AP)
Secondary drowning presents a deadly threat to kids. (AP)

WASHINGTON -- School is out, the summer heat is here and there are already local drownings and water accidents.

But what many parents may not realize is there is a form of drowning that's deceptive and kills over time.

It is called "secondary drowning" or sometimes "near drowning." It occurs when a child is submerged in water and comes out coughing and sputtering, and develops breathing problems later.

"They initially look well, and then over -- usually the first six to eight hours, but it can be as much as 24 hours out -- they can develop a lot of increased trouble breathing," says Dr. Erik Schobitz, medical director of the pediatric emergency room at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital.

What happens is the child develops an inflammation or swelling of the lungs called a pulmonary edema where the body struggles to get enough oxygen.

"That is why we have to watch them carefully after any one of these near drowning events," Schobitz says.

He says parents should look for these signs of respiratory distress:

  • An increased rate of breathing

  • Flaring of the nostrils, where the skin on the side of the nose pops in and out with each breath

  • Retraction of the ribs, meaning it's possible to see the skin sucking in between the ribs or over the ribs right at the "V" of the neck

  • Paradoxal or "see-saw" breathing, where the tummy pops out and the chest caves in with each breath

Any of these indications of respiratory distress should raise warning flags for parents, prompting an immediate trip to the ER. Schobitz says it's best to err on the side of caution, adding he would rather see 10 false alarms than one dead child.

But he emphasizes the best treatment is preventing secondary drowning in the first place. It can happen even to good swimmers, and is most common when a child, for some reason, panics in the water, or engages in some roughhousing in a pool.

The bulk of kids cough up some water and are then fine. But no one wants their child to be the one who gets into trouble later. And Schobitz says the bottom line is parents need to keep close watch on their kids, even those believed to be strong swimmers.

"It is not time to be reading a book or on an iPhone. You watch. You can hang and talk to your friends but we have to watch. It's our job."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 10 people die each day from unintentional drowning. The CDC doesn't differentiate between those who die in the water or at the site, and those who are victims of secondary drowning.

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