As parents, it’s drilled into us to be on high alert
whenever our kids are near water. The pool. The beach. The bathtub. A child’s
drowning risk is a very real thing, and that’s why so many of us breathe a sigh
of relief when swimming or bath time is over. Because that means that our kids
are safe from drowning. Right?
As a recent tragic news story
out of Texas highlights, drowning dangers can still lurk hours or even a day or
more after a child is out of the water. It’s called “dry drowning” or “secondary
drowning,” and although rare, delayed drowning is a danger that parents need to
But before you panic and start obsessively looking for dry drowning symptoms in your child who went swimming yesterday, get the facts.
What is dry or secondary drowning?
According to Mark A. Mitchell, DO, an osteopathic emergency
medicine physician from Chicago, and member of the American
Osteopathic Association, dry drowning and
secondary drowning can develop after a child inhales water through the nose or
mouth. The twist is that symptoms only develop once the person is out of the
What happens? “In cases of dry drowning, the water causes a spasm in the
airway, causing it to close up and impact breathing. Delayed or secondary
drowning is similar, but “occurs when swimmers have taken water into their
lungs. The water builds up over time, eventually causing breathing
difficulties,” Dr. Mitchell describes.
Dry drowning typically strikes quickly (within an hour or
so after the child has gotten out of the water), but secondary drowning can be
delayed for up to 24 hours or more before signs of distress develop. Either form of delayed
drowning can be triggered by a near-drowning experience in the water, but even
if a child ingests only a "few gasps" of water, he or she could be at
But how common is dry drowning really?
It's not common at all. In fact, it's pretty rare.
According to the CDC, the total number
of all unintentional drownings (non-boating related) that take place annually
in the United States is approximately 3,500. About one in five people who die
from drowning are children 14 and younger. That is definitely grim. However, it's important to note that the CDC does not collect any annual data
specifically on dry or secondary drowning—probably because it doesn’t happen
very often. As a 2006 British Medical Journal study
showed, delayed drowning may account for just two to five percent of all
Recognize the signs
What should you be on the lookout for? Common symptoms of
dry or secondary drowning include:
or a drop in energy level
Symptoms can range from subtle to severe, and
unfortunately, are often easy to overlook. “Many parents don't recognize the signs of
delayed drowning because they believe their child is fatigued from a long
day of swimming,” Dr. Mitchell notes. He advises parents keep watch for any
changes of behavior in their child after swimming or water immersion.
As for you, instead of focusing on the stress and worry of all the things that can go wrong when kids and water combine, stay focused on
What to do
If your child begins to exhibit signs of distress after
being in water, or if your child had a near-drowning experience while in the
water, seek immediate medical attention to determine if airways are blocked,
water is in the lungs, or oxygen levels are low.
“Treat dry or secondary drowning as a
medical emergency,” Dr. Mitchell advises. Depending on the situation, a child
may be administered emergency breathing treatments, receive medications, or be
advised to wait out and monitor very mild/non-life-threatening symptoms.
How can it be prevented?
To keep kids safe and prevent any kind of water-related
injuries and emergencies, Dr. Mitchell encourages parents to take commonsense
• Teach kids water safety, including no diving in shallow
waters and only swimming in areas with lifeguards.
• Make sure pool areas are kid-proofed and secured with
• Never let children swim alone. Be vigilant when watching
them swim or play around large and small bodies of water such as plastic pools
• Make rules about no rough play, such as head dunking, in
and around water.
• Warn teens about the risks of swimming under the influence
of drugs and alcohol.
As for you, instead of focusing on the stress and worry of
all the things that can go wrong when kids and water combine, stay focused on
prevention! You are probably already watching your kids like a hawk, so keep on
And remember, going to the beach or pool together is what family
fun is all about. If something happens, do your best to stay calm—and reach
out for help.