The Dangers of Dry Drowning

School is almost out and summer is almost here which means that it will soon be pool season.  There is often quite a bit of talk about pool safety and the precautions you can take to avoid pool drownings.  But there is a little talk of a very real danger to children known as “dry drowning”.  

Kids In The Pool During The Summer

Dangers In And Out Of The Water

Dry drowning, also known as “secondary drowning”, or a “submersion injury”, is when a child seems perfectly fine after swimming but then later starts to have trouble breathing.  The difficulty breathing may begin an hour after getting out of the body of water up to a full 24 hours.

In a case of dry drowning, a person somehow takes in a small amount of water either through the mouth or nose (or both) and the water later causes a spasm in the airway.  The spasm ultimately causes the airway to close up.  Dry drowning typically exhibits symptoms soon after exiting the water.  In a case of secondary drowning, a small amount of water gets into the lungs directly which then leads to swelling.  The swelling in the lungs makes it very difficult for the airways to transfer oxygen to carbon dioxide and vice versa.  The symptoms of secondary drowning may take up to 24 hours to appear.  So although these two conditions are confused because they are very similar, they do have differences.  Still, both can cause serious injury from the difficult breathing, sometimes even death.

Spot the Warning Signs of Dry/Secondary Drowning

With both dry drowning and secondary drowning, there are usually clear warning signs.  Regardless of the age of your child, if you notice any of these symptoms after your child exits a body of water, you should be on alert:

  • Persistent coughing or coughing along with difficulty breathing;
  • Rapid, shallow breathing;
  • Labored breathing;
  • Nostril flaring when breathing;
  • Able to see the child’s ribs when breathing;
  • Able to see gap above child’s collarbone when breathing;
  • Excessive sleepiness;
  • Forgetfulness;
  • Other change in behavior
  • Vomiting

If you notice any of the above, try to reach your child’s pediatrician for advice.  If you are worried, listen to your gut and get your child emergency treatment right away.

I remember the first time I heard about this condition, I was terrified to let my kids swim.  But dry drowning and secondary drowning are very rare; they only account for 1-2% of all drowning incidents.  Still, it is best to try to prevent your child from taking in water.  Parents Magazine recommends swim lessons, supervision, and water floatation devices.