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The Real Facts Behind Dry Drowning

Photograph by Twenty20

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 know about.

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 water.

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 risk.

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 submersion incidents.

Recognize the signs

What should you be on the lookout for? Common symptoms of dry or secondary drowning include:

• Trouble breathing

• Coughing

• Sleepiness or a drop in energy level

• Vomiting

• Irritability

• Chest pain

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 prevention!

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 steps:

• 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 fencing.

• Help your kids learn to swim as early as possible.

• Never let children swim alone. Be vigilant when watching them swim or play around large and small bodies of water such as plastic pools or bathtubs.

• 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 keeping 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.

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