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Experts Say Secondary Drowning Could Be Deadly If Not Watched

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – At the pool, kids splash and sputter.

"We've definitely had some incidents here where kids have gone under," said Jill Bianco with Healthtrax Aquatics."

As long as they come up, that means they're OK, right? Not necessarily.

"When you see a kid struggle or go under and come up coughing pretty good, that's a kid that needs to be watched for a while," said Dr. Lance Wells. "May turn out to be nothing, but you'll be glad you watched them if they are persistently coughing for the next 20 minutes, then you know you need to get some help."

Just a small amount of fluid for a short time into the airways can lead to two types of drowning, dry drowning and secondary drowning. Both can be potentially life threatening.

With dry drowning, the fluid sets off spasm in the airway and air can't get out. With secondary drowning, water gets in, sets up inflammation, which draws fluid into the lungs from the body, something called pulmonary edema.

"Usually we want those people into the ER fairly quickly," Wells said. "We're actually going to maintain their airway for them. Sometimes that requires what we call intubation; put them on a ventilator, a breathing machine."

One to 2 percent of drowning cases are of this nature. Kids younger than 5, and most people ages 15 to 25, are the most commonly affected.

Persistent coughing, fatigue, vomiting, chest pain and wheezing are the usual symptoms and can occur up to 24 hours.

Dr. Wells has not seen a case as a doctor, but did have a case as a lifeguard.

"We knew the kid had a near accident in the pool," said Wells. "But seemed to be fine. Finished playing with the family … in the parking lot, family called for help and we got out there and gave him a couple rescue breaths."

With awareness and prompt attention, the prognosis is good. With prevention, even better.

"I'm a parent myself," Wells said. "I know with my children, we have a little pool in our backyard. It's nothing big, but anything little can happen, so I am right on it and watching them at all times."

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