Secondary Drowning

What is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning is a rare drowning problem. It is not seen as an official medical condition, but as a complication of drowning. It can occur when someone is exposed to water — even a small amount — and it gets in their lungs. Secondary drowning most often occurs after a child has been swimming or bathing.

Symptoms of secondary drowning

Symptoms of secondary drowning may begin within 24 hours of water exposure. Or they may take a couple days to show up. They include:

  • constant coughing
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • decreased energy
  • extreme fatigue (feeling tired or sleeping more than normal)
  • change in behavior, such as being fussy or irritable.

What causes secondary drowning?

The underlying cause of secondary drowning is pulmonary edema. This is a medical condition in which water irritates the lungs and makes it hard to breathe. Instead of your lungs filling with air when you take a breath, they fill with fluid. It prevents enough oxygen from reaching your lungs and other organs, such as your heart. Symptoms of acute pulmonary edema are:

  • trouble breathing
  • sweating
  • coughing
  • spitting up foamy liquid
  • wheezing or gasping
  • blue or gray skin
  • feeling dizzy, weak, or lightheaded.

Dry drowning is a problem similar to secondary drowning. The difference is that water fills and irritates the vocal chords. This causes them to spasm and close up, which also makes it hard to breathe. Symptoms of dry drowning often begin right after water exposure.

How is secondary drowning diagnosed?

The best way to survive secondary drowning is to seek help right away. If your child has drowning symptoms or nearly drowns, go to the emergency room immediately—even if the symptoms go away. To diagnose secondary drowning, the doctor should do a chest X-ray to look for fluid in the lungs.

Can secondary drowning be prevented or avoided?

You cannot avoid secondary drowning. However, there are things you can do to try to prevent it.

  • Watch your child when they are in or around water.
  • Teach your kids how to be safe in water.
  • Do not leave your child in or around water alone.
  • Do not let your child swim alone.
  • Take your child to the emergency room if they nearly drown or show signs of drowning.

Secondary drowning treatment

If your child goes to the hospital, the doctor may want to keep your child overnight. This way, they can monitor their breathing and oxygen levels. Your child may need a breathing tube, IV, or other treatments to get rid of the fluid and relieve symptoms.

Living with secondary drowning

In most cases, symptoms of drowning go away on their own. However, you should seek and receive treatment if you are concerned. If caught in time, people who have secondary drowning can recover and live a normal life.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my child has symptoms of secondary drowning or is simply tired or sick?
  • How long should I wait to take my child to the emergency room?
  • If I notice symptoms of drowning, should I give my child CPR?
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