Dry Drowning: What You Need to Know

Learn to swim to prevent dry drowning
Watch kids closely when they’re in the water and begin swimming lessons as early as possible.

Dry drowning became a hot topic this summer after a news story about a young child dying days after going swimming spread across social media.

If you’re like me, you had probably never even heard of dry drowning before hearing these stories. As a parent of a toddler, it was a little scary. I reached out to Chris Holstege, MD, Professor of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics, to get his expert opinion.

Is Dry Drowning Real?

It is possible for children to develop worsening symptoms and injury to the lungs after a potential drowning. However, Holstege cautions against using terms such as dry drowning. The World Health Organization has actually advised that terms such as near, wet, dry, passive, active, secondary, and silent drowning should no longer be used. Recently, other physicians such as those in the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council have also reached consensus that the term “dry” drowning should not be distinguished from “wet” drowning.

Look Out for These Drowning Symptoms

When people say “dry” drowning, they’re referring to a condition when breathing in water causes the vocal cords to spasm and close up. This shuts off the airway to the lungs, making it very difficult to breathe. However, these symptoms begin right away, not days later.

Watch for these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Continuous cough
  • Chest pain
  • Exhaustion

If the child is having trouble breathing, call 911.

“Secondary drowning” usually refers to a situation when someone gets water into their lungs, damage to the lung tissue occurs, and subsequently fluid builds up in the gas exchange areas, making it difficult to breathe. Again, a caregiver would notice the child coughing and having trouble breathing right away and then getting steadily worse over time.

“Any child with a potential drowning should be evaluated by medical personnel,” says Holstege. “If the child is having difficulty breathing, consider calling 911 so they can be seen quickly in an emergency department before symptoms may worsen. If the child is having minor symptoms, such as a persistent cough that is failing to resolve, consider taking them to an urgent care or emergency department.”

Advice For Parents

It’s important to know that such described drowning incidents are extremely rare. They make up only about one to two percent of all drowning cases.

Overall, drowning does kill nearly 4,000 people in the United States every year. It is also the most common injury-related cause of death for children between ages one and four. Children younger than four years are more likely to drown in a swimming pool.

Holstege advises:

  • Watch kids closely when near bodies of water and avoid distractions (children are fast!).
  • Don’t assume others are watching your children when in large gatherings such as a family reunion.
  • Begin swimming lessons as early as possible, so they can learn how to handle themselves safely in water.

You can also take preventive steps such as installing a fence around pools if you have one at home.

“With adequate supervision, swimming instruction and public education measures, it is estimated that 85% of drownings can be prevented,” says Holstege.

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