Delayed drowning — How is it possible?

Posted at 5:17 PM, Jul 08, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-09 21:14:46-04

Did you know that three days after being rescued from the water, people can still drown?

“It's usually seen in kids, and they'll have some sort of event in the water where they have temporary respiratory symptoms, and then they look fine and they look fine for hours and hours. They'll all of a sudden have persistent coughing or you'll begin to notice their lips are blue,” says Dr. Frank Counselman from Sentara Norfolk General.

It's called delayed drowning, which makes up one in 50 drownings nationwide.

What causes it is the loss of something inside your lungs you've probably never heard before called surfactant.

“Surfactant is a substance within the body that helps keep the airways open, the smallest airway where the work is actually being done is the alveoli, and alveoli take oxygen in and it allows carbon dioxide out,” says Counselman.

Without surfactant, the airway closes and carbon dioxide builds up and a person stops breathing.

The cause of death is drowning, even hours later on dry land.

Surfactant is lost when someone takes in water.

Counselman says once a rescued drowning victim has trouble breathing, they need to be rushed to the hospital.

“It doesn't take much for someone to have problems. It can take a very small amount of water inhaled into the lungs to cause a problem,” says Counselman.

Children may be hardest hit, but the threat of delayed drowning doesn't go away with age.

Experts say in adult males between 15-25 years old, alcohol can be a factor at times.

For Virginia Beach Fire and Rescue, they evaluate every person they pull out of the ocean.

If they've taken in any significant amount of water, they're treated at the hospital.

Most people are fine after the rescue. It’s taking that extra precaution that helps to save lives and prevent delayed drownings.

Throughout the week, NewsChannel 3 will alert you all of more dangers summer can present each night: Dangers of digging holes in the sand, dangerous rip currents, propane explosions. And finally, deadly disease-carrying bugs, that are invading Hampton Roads: they are not only making you miserable, but they are potentially fatal.