What is Secondary Drowning?

Visitors to our website are aware that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning accidents are responsible for an average of 10 deaths per day, with many of those deaths occurring in the childhood to young adult age groups. However, there is relatively little data available regarding those who survive such accidents and make up a subgroup that we call victims of near-drowning accidents.

In today's post, the drowning accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will discuss a medical condition that is encountered almost exclusively in near-drowning victims: "secondary" drowning. He will then discuss the legal avenues that may be available to those who have been injured by this condition.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to understand what happens to the victim's physiology (normal body function) in a drowning accident.

What is "drowning," from a medical perspective?

The drowning process is best described in "physical" terms of cause, effect, consequence, and outcome:

  • The cause of drowning is the presence of a liquid in the upper airway (nose, mouth, and trachea / "windpipe") which interferes with the body's ability to "move" air from the atmosphere to the lungs or from the lungs to the atmosphere. This is sometimes (incorrectly) called "gas exchange," as explained in the next paragraph.

  • The immediate effect of the presence of this liquid is the loss of the body's ability to bring the "gas" oxygen (in the inhaled air) into the body via the lungs, allowing the cells that make up the lungs to "exchange" carbon dioxide produced by the body for the oxygen the body needs to function normally.

  • The immediate consequence of loss of normal gas exchange in the lungs is that the body quickly uses up its "available" oxygen in the blood, a condition known as hypoxia. This causes the two body organs that require a constant supply of oxygen, the brain and the heart, to begin to malfunction. In the case of the brain, the victim loses consciousness (and the ability of the rest of the body to "save itself") and the heart will cease to effectively function shortly afterward. If these conditions are quickly corrected, the victim will die within minutes.

  • Although drowning accidents are frequently fatal, their outcome can be influenced by 1) how quickly the victim is removed (rescued) from danger and 2) how quickly effective emergency medical measures (e.g. CPR) begin.

What is "secondary drowning?"

In the professional medical literature, a "secondary drowning" is usually defined as respiratory distress ("trouble breathing") that develops within 24 to 48 hours after a near drowning accident. In addition to a medical history of a near drowning incident in the previous 24 to 48 hours, the following "signs and symptoms" are suggestive of secondary drowning:

  • a new cough
  • difficulty breathing similar to that seen in asthma
  • chest pain that is related to inspiration, becoming worse with deeper breaths
  • the appearance of a "bluish" tint in the lips, mouth, and nailbeds
  • in children, a decrease in normal physical activity ("lethargy")

Although secondary drowning is uncommon, with most authorities estimating it occurs in less than 2% of near-drownings, the appearance of any of the above symptoms in a recent near-drowning victim must be evaluated by a health care practitioner.

Can secondary drowning be prevented?

Each drowning accident and each drowning accident victim are, of course, unique. With that said, we must also note that the great majority of drowning accidents do have a single factor in common: they were preventable! This observation also applies to those rare cases of secondary drowning.

The key to preventing a secondary drowning episode is education of the victim, and the victim's family, in the recognition of the signs and symptoms that indicate this condition may be developing. If the near-drowning victim is treated at an Emergency Room or as a hospital inpatient, this education will be provided by the medical and/or nursing staff and documented in the victim's discharge instructions. Failure to provide the near-drowning victim and/or the victim's family with discharge instructions or to make arrangements for follow-up medical care could be taken as evidence of negligence or of medical malpractice.

What to do after a Secondary Drowning

Although secondary drowning is relatively rare, if it happens to a family member it has occurred in 100% of the near-drowning victims known to you!

If you suspect that you or a family member were the victim of medical malpractice related to a secondary drowning incident, we invite you to contact the drowning accident injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm, a national personal injury law practice with offices located throughout the country.

When you contact our office, your case review and your first consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you are always free and do not obligate you to hire our firm. Should you decide to file a lawsuit and that you would like for us to represent you in court, we are willing to work with you through all stages of your lawsuit in exchange for an agreed-upon percentage of the settlement that we will win for you.