A Day At The Beach Gone Wrong: Our Experience With Secondary Drowning

by Holly Loftin
Originally Published: 
A person in the sea splashing, experiencing secondary drowning
Goami / iStock

We all hear the words “dry drowning,” and we get a big lump in our throat. The concept is terrifying because we have been taught our whole lives that a drowning incident involves water submersion and immediate response and rescue. We have been programmed to think that once our child gets out of the water, we are home free, but sadly that isn’t always the case.

I’ve heard multiple stories lately on this subject, and I have decided to open up about what happened to my son a couple years ago.

It was Mother’s Day 2015, and we decided to go down to the beach for the day. My son didn’t know how to swim yet, so he and my husband were playing very close to shore, jumping over knee-high waves, and collecting shells. My husband was holding his hand the entire time and did not leave his side once. I didn’t care to get in the water that particular day, so I was sitting on the sand, watching them play, and reading a magazine. It was one of those days that had been wonderful and memorable. Probably the best Mother’s Day to date.

I remember going to grab something from the car, and when I returned my son was coughing. I asked what happened, and he said that he had gotten knocked over by a little wave. I asked if he had swallowed any water, and he said, “Just a little.” He ran off to go play some more, and I didn’t think much of the incident.

About 10 minutes later, we started to load up the car to head back home. When I went to buckle my son in his car seat, I noticed that his face was really red. I thought it was a little odd, but I figured that I just hadn’t put enough sunscreen on him and he’d gotten a sunburn. I felt bad, but we are pretty pale people, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

As we started driving down the interstate, my son started to tell me that he was so sleepy and couldn’t keep his eyes open. He was actually screaming, like fighting the sleep was causing him actual pain. This was odd to me because he isn’t usually one to fight sleep, he always just falls asleep wherever he may be. In fact, he’d dozed off with a chip in his mouth at a Mexican restaurant on numerous occasions.

As we continued our drive, he started to act more and more disoriented and out of character. He started to talk about things that didn’t make sense, telling me stories about things that had happened two years ago, and seeing things that weren’t there. This is when I got scared. I started to panic and told my husband that we needed to find a hospital ASAP; that something serious might be going on. I remember my mind starting to spin, and googling “dry drowning.”

How could this possibly happen to him? He had barely swallowed any water.

It just didn’t make sense. He was absolutely fine all day and had become severely ill in less than an hour. I remembered reading an article about “dry drowning” months before, and it’s one of those stories that forever haunted me. I remember the boy went to sleep and never woke up.

At this point, I was becoming frantic and letting dark, scary thoughts creep into my mind.

I’ll be honest, my husband thinks I can be a bit of an alarmist, and he was trying to rationalize my son’s behavior in an effort to calm me down.

Maybe he just got too much sun.

Maybe he was just worn out and delirious.

All valid points, except he had been all those things before and had never acted like this.

I wasn’t taking no for an answer. We were going to the ER. Deep down in my gut, something felt very wrong. A mother’s instinct is something unexplainable, and I was not taking any chances.

I remember the drive to find an ER in the middle of nowhere as being the longest drive of my life. I was doing everything I could to keep my little boy awake.

We finally found a stand-alone-ER, and we rushed him in. We were taken back to the examination room immediately, and the doctor informed me that my son had a 105-degree fever and reduced oxygen. They did a chest X-ray, and lo and behold, he had fluid in his lungs. The doctor seemed baffled and confused about how he had gotten so sick, so fast.

They started working on getting his fever down and gave him a couple breathing treatments and supplemental oxygen. He started to improve in about 30 minutes (praise the Lord) and was kept for observation for the next couple of hours.

The doctor diagnosed him as having fluid in his lungs from water inhalation that was, in turn, causing an inflammatory response, also known as “secondary drowning.” He told me that he didn’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t brought him in.

He had done a 180 by the time we left the ER and seemed to be his normal, cheery self, but I still sat up all night watching him sleep to make sure he was breathing.

This incident was beyond terrifying and still leaves me shaken to this day, but it pales in comparison to other stories that I have read. I want to be clear that kids swallow water all the time, and they are usually just fine. In fact, my son just swallowed a ton of water yesterday, and he carried on as usual. I don’t want to be the person who ruins your summertime experiences by clouding you with worry, or sends you into a state of panic if your kiddo gets a mouthful of water in the bath.

“Secondary drowning” occurs when a small amount of water gets into the lungs and prevents the lungs’ ability to oxygenate blood. Many times the water dissipates on its own, and you may never even know that they had fluid in their lungs to begin with, but sometimes it can get much worse.

I’m not an expert, or a medical professional, so I can only speak to our experience and what led up to my son’s diagnosis. There’s plenty of resources for further researching secondary drowning, and also signs/symptoms to look for in your own children, and it’s always good to equip ourselves with that knowledge.

The whole incident is still so surreal to me because it literally happened so fast. I’m forever grateful that I took action when I did because the unknown in situations like this is just too scary to even think about. I would never take a chance with my son’s life. A trip to the ER is a huge pain in the butt, but you cannot put a price on peace of mind, and I’m willing to risk looking neurotic or overprotective any day of the week.

I am now a lot more aware of what’s going on with my son in the water. I’ve always watched him like a hawk, but now I’m on another level. I’m sure I will loosen up as he gets older, but for now, it is what it is. He has his whole life to do things without my supervision, so he will have to handle his mom hovering over him for now.

I truly believe incidents like these are rare, but it never hurts to be diligent when watching our children, and assessing their symptoms.

And always trust your gut.

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