Near Drowning and Other Risks for Children in and Around Water

Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent on June 26, 2015

Relaxing in the water is the perfect way to cool off from the sweltering D.C. sun. But summertime water fun can quickly turn dangerous for children, who can drown in seconds if left unattended. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14, making water safety habits a vital part of any water activity.

“Usually, when families are near water it’s to have a good time, and so you want to go out for fun and come back with the same joy and happiness,” says Dr. Christi Hay of Palisades Pediatrics in Washington, D.C. “Water accidents can totally change the direction of that, and they are totally preventable with easy, easy things.”

The most important drowning prevention technique is actively watching children by engaging with them in the water, rather than just glancing up from a cellphone or book. Also, while in the water with them, use the “touch supervision” rule-of-thumb to ensure your children are always within arm’s reach while they are in the water.

Families with pools need to be wary of the additional dangers that a pool presents for young children. Pools should be fenced in on all sides, and covered when not in use. After playtime, all pool toys should be put away so children are not tempted to reenter the water to retrieve them, and any additional water containers, such as buckets and kiddie pools, should be emptied.

According to the CDC, for children ages 1 to 4, the majority of drownings occur in residential swimming pools, so these precautions are crucial for their safety. By the time a child turns 4, he or she is ready for proper swim lessons, which the CDC says can reduce the risk of drowning.

“It’s super important for kids to know how to swim,” says Dr. Hay. “It’s good for kids to start swim lessons by four years of age. It’s a life skill and everyone should know how to do it.”

All of these safety precautions are common sense for most parents, but they can easily be overlooked in the excitement of the summer swimming season. Children must be constantly supervised in any body of water, as just a few seconds out of sight can be plenty of time for a dangerous situation to occur.

Near-Drowning and Later Dangers

Near-drowning experiences can cause health problems for children even hours after the accident occurs. When a child experiences a near-drowning incident, in which the child recovers after swallowing water while submerged, his health may again be in danger later due to a rare condition informally called “secondary drowning.” In 1980, the British Medical Journal published an article titled “Secondary Drowning in Children,” and defined the condition as deterioration of lung functioning following a near-drowning experience.

“A near-drowning accident would be when a kid is found in water [and] is having difficulty breathing and has to have some assistance in order to resume breathing again,” says Dr. Hay.

Secondary drowning occurs rarely, happening in less than 5 percent of near-drowning incidents, according to the article in the British Medical Journal. Although an article from 1980 may seem out of date, the condition is still around today, with two major instances – one fatal and one a very close call – making national headlines in the past seven years.

Although secondary drowning is a rarity, the claim brings up an important reminder for parents. When children experience a near-drowning event, it is crucial that their recovery is monitored for up to 24 hours to ensure they are not in any additional danger.

Additionally, Dr. Hay recommends that any child who experiences near-drowning should be seen in an emergency room, since submergence decreases oxygen to the brain. Additionally, parents should look for physical signs of a poor recovery.

“Signs that a child may have been submerged underwater [too long] include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing and [being] drowsy or lethargic,” says Dr. Hay.

Drowning is preventable, especially with the help of recent advancements in wearable swim technologies, which use water-sensitive monitors to alert parents when their child has been underwater for too long.

Wearable Swim Technologies

Swimwear technologies can help alert parents when their child is at risk of drowning. They feature wearable water sensors that are synced to a land-based alarm system warning parents when the wearer has been underwater for too long.

The iSwimband comes as a sensor attached to a waterproof headband or wristband. The accompanying app uses BlueTooth to connect with the sensor and alerts parents when the iSwimband wearer has been submerged for too long. On the app, parents can set submersion limits for up to eight iSwimband devices. The bands can be used in pools, lakes, beaches, rivers and spas with a range of up to 100 feet.

The Safety Turtle uses a similar monitoring system. The Safety Turtle Child Kit includes a wristband that is synced to a “base,” similar to a baby monitor, which sets off an alarm if the band is submerged. The Safety Turtle is best for small children, as the alarm sounds as soon as the wrist monitor gets wet.

Each of these pieces of technology cost between $60 and $150, with additional monitors and wristbands sold in single packages. However, although these technologies are promising aids to parents, alarms are never a replacement for watching children vigilantly and actively.

“[Drowning] is a preventable accident,” says Dr. Hay. “Parents should be aware of water safety for children of all ages in order to keep their kids well and healthy around water.”

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