The symptoms of water in the lungs from swimming can have fatal consequences if not recognized and treated immediately. Typically, fluid in the lungs stems from physiological causes, such as pulmonary edema, but it is possible to accumulate water in the lungs from swimming. Water that you swallow unintentionally while swimming could end up in your lungs and cause water-borne illness.
Inadvertently inhaling or "swallowing" water during your swim can contribute to recreational water illness (RWI) that can be serious or sometimes fatal.
Learn to Breathe
Swimming is a healthy physical activity that nearly anyone can enjoy, but there are plenty of risks involved. Some of the perhaps lesser-known risks are those associated with swallowing water. Beginners and children are prone to inhaling water unintentionally when learning how to swim due to their inexperience and breathing technique.
Learning how to breathe correctly when swimming is essential, as it helps you develop a cadence and rhythm when performing specific swimming strokes. The key to keeping water from entering your mouth is to exhale as your head nears the water surface consistently.
Water in Lungs vs. Drowning
There is no such thing as secondary drowning or near drowning, according to the American Red Cross. If you inhale water during your workout and are walking and talking afterward, don't fear that you might drown days later due to pulmonary deterioration.
That doesn't mean that symptoms of water in your lungs from swimming that appear days later should be ignored. Taking water into the lungs while swimming can expose you to germs that can cause recreational water illness.
Know About RWI
Recreational water illness is a general term for a sickness caused by ingesting mists, vapors or water. Although diarrhea from swallowing water into the digestive symptom is the most common type of RWI according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's also possible to get sick from inhaling water into the lungs.
Legionella is a germ that causes a type of pneumonia commonly known as Legionnaire's disease. Although it's treatable, the disease is potentially fatal for people with other lung conditions or who have weakened immune systems.
Warm water that isn't properly chlorinated — such as those found in under-cleaned hot tubs, warm pools or tepid lakes — is a ripe spot to find Legionella. Use special care not to inhale vapors or mists if you fall into a risk group such as being over 50, a smoker or having a chronic lung condition.
Know When to Get Treatment
If you inhaled water and are having trouble talking normally or breathing deeply afterward, consult a medical professional immediately. If breathing difficulty, coughing or other troubling symptoms of water in lungs from swimming develop days later, it's also time to get prompt medical attention.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination and listen to your lungs using a stethoscope. This is known as auscultation, during which you inhale and exhale deeply. A crackling sound in the lungs is a reliable indicator that fluids have collected.
Consider the Swimming Environment
If you are a beginner, avoid swimming in natural bodies of water. Instead, stick to a local pool that maintains a regular cleaning schedule. Stick to calm waters as you hone your skills to minimize inhaling water into the lungs.
Swimming in the ocean can present a variety of dangers and requires experience. Choppy seas and swells can make it difficult to breathe if you are not familiar with how to handle such conditions.
Rivers with strong currents also pose a risk. Currents can quickly submerge a person or produce rapids that splash water. Waves from wind and boat traffic can also produce swells that put less-experienced swimmers at risk.