NORFOLK -- Lindsay Kujawa just turned away from her son Ronin for 'maybe five seconds' and the toddler tumbled into the water at a pool party.
'I just turned ... and he had jumped into the spa and the jets whirled him to the other side,' Kujawa, who is from San Diego, told ABC's 'Good Morning America' today.
Kajawa said she pulled him out after about 20 seconds and Ronin seemed unscathed.
'I'm like he's okay,' she said. 'He's not blue, he's choking up the water, he seems fine.'
But, he was not out of the woods. About an hour later, Ronin started to cough and became lethargic, and by the time Kujawa got him to the emergency room, the toddler was diagnosed with a little known, but potentially fatal condition -- sometimes called secondary drowning.
Ronin still had fluid in his lungs, preventing the tiny air sacs from moving oxygen into the bloodstream, and was having difficulty breathing. Eventually, his heart could have stopped.
Read Lindsay Kujawa's story
Dr. Francis Counselman with the Eastern Virginia Medical School said secondary drowning is when water gets sucked into a person's lungs after a person has been submerged.
But what makes secondary drowning so frightening, according to Counselman, is that someone can die from it hours after being in the water.
'They've gotten some water into their lungs -- what doctors refer to as aspiration. Initially they may look OK, just a little bit of coughing, and then later what happens is that they begin to develop respiratory symptoms,' said Counselman.
But then hours later -- sometimes up to 48 hours later -- that inhaled water can be fatal.
Get the facts: Protect your child from drowning
'Oxygen can't get into the lungs, carbon dioxide can't get out and they can get pretty significant respiratory distress hypoxia and it can be quiet dangerous,' said Counselman.
Secondary drowning occurs in about five percent of drowning cases and comes after a near-drowning experience. Boys between the ages of one and four are commonly the victims of secondary drowning, Counselman said. He also warns that more people die from secondary drowning after they fall asleep.
Tom Gill with Virginia Beach Life Saving Service said if a child gets out of the water coughing or having a hard time breathing that could be a sign they need to be taken to the emergency room.
'Anybody that does come up that's choking on water, spitting up water, having difficulty breathing, we really need to keep an eye on them,' Gill said.
Keeping an eye on them means paying attention to how they are acting. Make sure they are NOT:
- Having problems breathing
- Coughing more
- Looking fatigued
Gill said the best way to prevent secondary drowning is to learn how to swim.