Unless you live under a rock, at least in the social media world, you’ve heard about secondary drowning. Making its rounds on the Internet is the story of how a normal Saturday turned into a nightmare for one particular mommy blogger, Lindsay Kujawa. In her blog, “Delighted Momma,” Kujawa writes about the scary experience she had when her almost 2-year-old son, Ronin, nearly drowned at her niece’s birthday party. She was watching her son sit on the steps of a hot tub as the other kids at the party played in the pool. She turned around for 5 seconds, but that’s all that was needed for everything to go wrong. When she turned back, she saw Ronin being swept up by the jets at the other end of the hot tub. His head was bobbing up and down and he was trying desperately to get air. She quickly grabbed him, but other than the toddler being visibly upset and coughing up water, he seemed to be okay.

However, later that day, Kujawa noticed that Ronin seemed more tired than usual and had an odd cough that caused him to tense up upon exertion. She called her pediatrician and explained what had happened earlier in the hot tub. The pediatrician told her to take Ronin to the ER immediately because he may have been experiencing something called secondary drowning. She rushed her son to Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where he was hooked up to all kinds of machines. Fortunately, Ronin made a full recovery, but had his mother not brought him in as soon as she did, that easily would not have been the case.

So what exactly is secondary drowning and what do you need to know to prevent this from ever happening? Stephen Epstein, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, explains the difference between primary and secondary drowning. “With primary drowning, you inhale water and you can’t breathe and you die right away,” he said. “But with secondary drowning, you die because of a secondary injury to the lung caused by a small amount of the water getting into the lung.” Secondary drowning occurs after a victim is out of the water, and is also known as dry drowning. It happens when someone inhales small amounts of water during a struggle while they are swimming. Fluid builds up in the lungs, called pulmonary edema, and causes trouble breathing as well as possible brain injury, just as drowning in the water does. If left untreated, the consequences can be fatal.

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Signs that someone is experiencing secondary drowning include the following:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Extreme fatigue

Look for these signs if someone has struggled in the water, even hours later. If you notice any of the above signs, go straight to the ER. If caught quickly enough, secondary drowning can be treated with oxygen or ventilation at the hospital. Whereas the thought of secondary drowning can be alarming, it only amounts to 1% to 2% of all drowning cases.


  1. Kujawa L. Secondary drowning + my recent experience & real life almost nightmare. Delighted Momma website. May 20, 2014. http://www.delightedmomma.com/2014/05/secondary-drowning-my-recent-experience.html.
  2. Newman E. What are dry drowning and secondary drowning? WebMD website. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20140602/dry-drowning-faq.
  3. Secondary drowing. The Redwoods Group website. June 5, 2008. http://www.redwoodsgroup.com/safety-resources/aquatics-guidance-and-tools/safety-guidance/secondary-drowning-ymcas.