What is Secondary Drowning?

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Secondary drownings can develop hours after a swim, bath or anything that occurs with water.  Secondary drowning is without water remaining in the airways. It is a secondary injury which is often classed as a drowning incident.

It’s is a very mild form of drowning, You take a bit of water and sputter and cough, but seem OK shortly thereafter. Over time, a reaction develops in the lungs. The water itself is gone, but the lungs become inflamed. There is a change in blood flow that impacts the lung sacs.

Secondary drowning symptoms

Most symptoms involve irregular breathing: trouble catching one’s breath, feeling winded without exertion, breathing too quickly or panting and excessive coughing. Inadequate oxygen can cause unexplained tiredness or unusual behavior such as disorientation or slurred speech and is something that slowly builds up.

“Secondary drowning is incredibly unusual. Understand what to look for and just use common sense to address the problem, calling an ambulance immediately.


  • Severe drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for children 1–14 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, secondary drowning is a rare occurrence and unlikely to result in death.
  • Only a small amount of water is needed to induce secondary drowning. An incident can be caused by time in open water, indoor pools or even a bathtub.
  • Secondary drownings typically happen without water remaining in the airways. It is a reaction of the lungs following previous inhalation of water.
  • Secondary drownings typically occur 5–8 hours after the initial incident.
  • Symptoms include difficulty breathing such as coughing, wheezing, panting and shortness of breath without exertion. Lack of oxygen can also cause unexplained fatigue, unusual behavior, disorientation and slurred speech.

Thanks to the Albany Creek Leisure Centre for providing this valuable information as they help teach Brisbane Kids how to swim in their popular Brisbane Learn to Swim Classes.


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