Learning About Nonfatal Drowning in Children

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What is nonfatal drowning?

Drowning happens when a person is underwater and breathes water into the lungs. A drowning that doesn't result in death is often called a nonfatal drowning.

When your child breathed water into his or her lungs, the lungs were no longer able to supply oxygen to your child's body. Lack of oxygen quickly affects organs throughout the body, including the brain and heart. And even a little water in the lungs can cause serious lung problems in the next hours or days.

Your child will need to be in the hospital for testing and treatment. The doctor may order tests such as blood tests, X-rays, and other imaging tests, like a CT scan or an MRI.

You may see a lot of tubes and wires attached to your child. This can look scary. But these things help the doctor care for your child. Some of the tubes may supply air, fluid, and medicines. The wires are hooked to machines that help the doctor keep track of your child's vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.

Nonfatal drowning can injure your child's brain and can be life-threatening. Your child may need special care, such as being in the intensive care unit (ICU). The care team will watch your child closely and make any needed changes in treatment right away.

How is it treated?

Treatment may include:

  • Help with breathing. A machine called a ventilator will gently push air into your child's lungs. There may be a tube down your child's throat that is attached to the ventilator.
  • Medicines to help prevent infection or to treat symptoms, such as seizures or pressure on the brain, if they occur. These may be given through a vein (I.V.).
  • Fluids or nutrition given through a vein (I.V.).
  • Supportive care. Your child will be watched carefully and given treatment to help prevent serious problems such as seizures and brain damage.

What can you expect after a nonfatal drowning?

How long it takes your child to get better depends on many things, including the temperature of the water and how long your child was under the water. It can take from a few days to many months.

Your child may have changes in how he or she thinks or concentrates. These symptoms get better over time in most children. But some children have lasting effects.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.