Meadville Tribune

Our Health

June 16, 2014

Learn to swim and keep drowning at bay

When you and your family hit the pool or the beach this summer, you need to be aware of a phenomenon known as secondary drowning, or dry drowning. Secondary drowning is not a new concept, but it is one that is especially dangerous for children. Children are more susceptible to this type of drowning mainly because of their active play and splashing in the water, which causes incidental inhalation of that water into the lungs. The water can remain there for a period of time acting as an irritant, possibly posing a more serious threat.

Research has revealed inhaling water during swimming activities can damage the alveoli of the lungs. The alveoli provide the function of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange during the breathing process. They provide a barrier that prevents harmful gases and chemical to enter the blood stream while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the body.

While you may not think it’s possible for a child to inhale enough water to damage their lungs, it doesn’t take much of it to become a significant irritant in a smaller person’s developing lungs. Furthermore, chemically treated water (i.e. swimming pools) poses a great risk because those chemicals enter the lungs with the water. However, the incident can occur in both fresh water and salt water.

Of interest, it has been noted that those who suffered from salt water lung damage often struggled to recover, whereas those with dry drowning symptoms from fresh water immersion have a better chance of a full recovery. Secondary drowning is not something that you will notice immediately. It has a latent period of up to 48 hours. Symptoms include fast breathing, using the entire body to breathe, flushed face and mood changes. Physicians have found that when a parent notices there is a respiratory problem, it is often too late.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 10 to 15 percent of drowning deaths were a result of secondary drowning between 2005 and 2010.

One of the best ways to prevent secondary drowning is to teach your child how to swim. Swim lessons teach your child how to breathe when they are in water and will be less likely to inhale it. Three locations in Meadville provide swim lessons: Allegheny College, Meadville Area Recreation Complex and the Meadville Family YMCA.

At the MARC, group lessons started this week and run all summer; however, it’s not too late to get involved. They have baby swim lessons up through older children. Adult and private lessons are available by contacting the MARC. For more details on anything swim-related, contact MARC aquatics director Chris Nuzback at 724-6006.

Of interest, Nuzback commented on the use of floatation devices for swim assistance and how important it is that they be U.S. Coast Guard approved. Other devices can pose a threat to your children, as they may not stay inflated and may not provide the protection as intended. Nuzback is a strong proponent of water safety and commented, “The best thing you can do is pay attention to your children” when they are anywhere near water. “Just because they can stand in the water doesn’t mean they can’t drown.”

Another common location for swim lessons is the YMCA. The Meadville Family YMCA teaches children and adults how to swim. Children can start as young as 6 months. Not only will these lessons teach you and/or your child how to swim, but they also include water safety and boating safety.

Overall, it will help everyone be more comfortable in the water to prevent drowning or secondary drowning. Check out the YMCA’s website ( for swim lesson details or call 336-2196 and chat with aquatics director Laura Singo.

Lessons are also available through the summer at Allegheny College. Times and ages vary, so you will want to call the college’s Wise Center at 332-3350 for details.

In the meantime, the CDC has provided several tips to prevent swimming injuries, drowning and secondary drowning. Here are the top three:

- Closely supervisor children or designate a responsible adult to keep watch.

- Use the “Buddy System” — always swim with someone else who could help you in the event of an emergency.

- Watch for signs and symptoms of respiratory distress within the first 24 hours after leaving the water.

Nina Bell, Ph.D., MPH, is a public health professor with Ashford University and works in health promotions for the Meadville Family YMCA. She is a co-author of the book “Community and Public Health,” published by Bridgepoint Education Inc. You can email her at

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