What is Dry Drowning and how can it be prevented?

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Published on July 20, 2020

What is Dry Drowning and How Can it Be Prevented?

Photo of a group of kids splashing in a poolMost parents help their children become water safe at an early age, especially in Southern California where pools and beaches are easily accessible. But there’s still more you can do to keep your child safe when it comes to water exposure: learn the signs and symptoms of ‘dry drowning’ or ‘secondary drowning’, which occur following exposure to water. 

Dry drowning could cause labored breathing and affects a child’s airways. This usually happens after swimming or even while bathing, and can occur from simply getting water in the mouth or going underwater and breathing water into the nose. 

With ‘dry drowning,’ water never reaches the lungs, but affects your child’s vocal chords, causing them to spasm and constrict, blocking the child’s air passage and making it difficult to breathe. These symptoms usually happen right away and are noticeably connected to water exposure. 

‘Secondary drowning’ refers to a different complication. Sometimes pool, ocean or bath water gets into a child’s lungs. The water gets into the lining of the lungs, causing irritation and infection. This is known as pulmonary edema. You might notice that your child has trouble breathing right away, or symptoms can arise up to 24 hours following exposure to water. Your child may also be lethargic and tired. This is because your child’s lungs are compromised and there isn’t enough oxygen getting to the brain. 

Both ‘dry drowning’ and ‘secondary drowning’ events are very rare. But be aware of the symptoms so that you can seek medical attention for your child if needed. 

If you notice your child struggling to breathe, particularly after he or she has been exposed to water, and they have labored breathing, you should take your child to an emergency room. ER physicians can order a chest x-ray, start an IV and observe your child closely. 

Symptoms related to dry and secondary drowning complications include: 

  • Coughing and chest pain
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Listlessness

Remember that it’s important to take measures to help prevent drowning in the first place. According to WebMD, here are a few things to remember: 

  • Always watch your child when he or she is in or around water
  • Swim in areas that have a lifeguard
  • Never leave your child to swim alone
  • Never leave your baby in water alone, even for a moment
  • Teens are more likely to drown when alcohol or drugs are involved, so talk to your teen about drowning risks
  • Enroll your children in swimming classes so that they are confident and careful

Most of all, never let your guard down around water, even if it isn’t deep. Drowning can occur in bathtubs, small pools and fountains.

The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.