Swimming is a quintessential part of the summer experience for many adults and children. It can provide great exercise and is a wonderful way to beat the summer heat. Unfortunately, there are risks to swimming—mainly drowning. By staying vigilant and taking safety precautions, you can help keep your whole family safe this summer. Here is what you need to know.

Respiratory problems can happen when children (or anyone, for that matter) are submerged under water and either inhale or swallow water. There has been confusion and ambiguity over the potential respiratory issues that occur after water gets into either the upper airway or the lungs. The media often use the terms "dry drowning" and "secondary drowning," which are not favored by medical professionals, and do not accurately describe the reactions that can occur after water enters the airways. These terms do not have any clinical meaning and their ambiguity can cause panic and misunderstanding among parents. According to pediatrician Afif El-Hasan, M.D., "What you call the respiratory issues arising from water submersion is largely irrelevant. What really matters is knowing what symptoms to look for after a child has been swimming that require attention."

Respiratory distress from submersion in water can happen in several ways. Most drowning cases happen quickly when a person is underwater and can't come up for air. While someone is underwater and forced to take a breath, their normal breathing is disrupted by either fluid in the lungs or a spasm of the upper respiratory system. In rare cases, a person can develop delayed complications from inhaling water, usually within 24 hours of being out of the water. This is what the media have described as "dry drowning" or "secondary drowning."

No one knows exactly how much water intake causes complications, but experts agree, it probably is not that much. Children can drown in the bathtub or even large buckets of water. What we do know is there are no reported cases of a perfectly healthy child dying from delayed respiratory issues after swimming without experiencing any symptoms first.

Dr. El-Hasan recommends looking out for these symptoms in your children:

  • Excessive Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Wheezing
  • Panting or Shortness of Breath
  • Chest pain
  • Difficult talking or eating

If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, take them directly to the emergency room. He goes on to say, "Respiratory failure after immersion is rare but a good reminder to parents to be vigilant about their child's lung safety during swimming. Watch your child in and out of the water. Check on your child one more time before they go to bed if you are concerned."

Some tips for safe swimming include: 

  • Watch your child when they are in the water, especially if the water is rough like the ocean
  • Teach your children how to swim and never leave a non-swimmer unattended
  • Only swim in approved areas with a lifeguard present
  • If your child has breathing issues like asthma, talk with your pediatrician about extra precautions
  • Keep your child well hydrated
  • Have your child stop any activity that is causing repeated coughing in the water (like horseplay or poor swimming technique)

Swimming can be a wonderful way to stay physically active and make fun memories for the whole family. But, the bottom line is to stay attentive during and after swim time and seek medical attention if your child develops any symptoms.

Learn more about exercise and lung health, including tips for physical activity with lung disease.

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