Secondary drowning: a crucial water safety issue

Summer means more time around water, so be aware of these life-threatening signs and symptoms

My favourite thing to do with my sons when the weather starts to heat up is to take them swimming. It’s not even close.

Parks are nice, sure. Bike rides are fine. But even before my eldest could stand up, my wife and I were at the lake dipping him in the water.

A couple of summers ago, however, we had a swimming scare that really opened my eyes not only to my own ignorance about a potential pool danger, but a wider lack of knowledge as well.

Since that day, I’ve tried to tell as many people as possible about our experience so as to help others avoid the same situation.

First, the background. The kids’ grandparents have a pool in the backyard, and we were all in there one day during a visit. My youngest, William, was two years old at the time, so he wasn’t swimming yet.

He was in the pool wearing a life jacket though, and he was being held by a family member. All of a sudden, he threw his head back and accidentally took a big gulp of water. No big deal usually – we all swallow water occasionally and usually cough it up within a minute or two.

That’s what appeared to happen with William in this case. He hacked hard for a couple of minutes, then seemed to be fine. Where things got a little confusing was the fact that he already had a cough due to a summer cold he’d picked up, so he would occasionally cough the way he had for the previous week or so.

I took him home, gave him a big dinner, and he seemed like himself. When we put him to bed, however, we noticed a tiny difference in the way his breathing sounded … there was the faintest little gurgling.

Worried, my wife described our situation on a local moms’ social media group and asked if anyone had encountered anything similar. Perhaps it was his cold, but our Spidey Senses were definitely tingling.

One member, a paramedic, replied: “sounds like possible secondary drowning symptoms.”

Now, as you can imagine, hearing the term “drowning” associated with your child is a recipe for full-on PANIC MODE. Despite having worked at a newspaper almost my whole adult life and read umpteen thousands of articles, I’d never heard of secondary drowning.

I looked it up. Water gets into the lungs, and while someone may appear totally fine, fluid is actually building up the whole time. In the worst cases, victims can die days after being in the pool.

We quickly got William out of bed and my wife took him to a nearby hospital, and, sure enough, his lungs were filling up. Based on their assessment, he was transferred to CHEO in an ambulance, and two nights of inhaler medication and doctor monitoring later, William was back home.

One of the scariest parts of all this was the fact that almost everyone we told about secondary drowning replied with a “my goodness, I had no idea that was a thing.”

My goal here isn’t to scare people away from letting their kids play in water, or to panic every time one of them gets a gulp of water.

To the contrary, teaching your kids to swim and feel comfortable in water is the best way to prevent drowning. Last summer, when I was home taking care of the kids, we were in the pool nearly every day.

But learning how few people knew about secondary drowning was an eyeopener. I hope that by describing it here, it’ll help everyone have a safe and fun summer!

James Gordon is an Ottawa writer and entrepreneur. Follow him at


Photo: © sobolevskyi