What is Dry Drowning?

Everyone understands the importance of water safety, especially when it comes to younger children. However, the importance of water safety after leaving the water is not always emphasized. This lack of education can cause parents to be confused and fearful of their child’s well-being after leaving the water. Due to the rare, tragic stories of younger children who die hours or days after leaving the water, the terms “dry” and “secondary” have often been used to describe delayed injury or illness after swimming.

Although these terms are sometimes used in the media, in 2002 the World Congress on Drowning defined drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment due to submersion or immersion in a liquid.” This uniform definition has been accepted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, and many others.

Is Dry Drowning Real?

Dry drowning is a non-medical term that has never had a universally accepted definition. It is used by some to describe a rare complication that can occur after someone inhales water that triggers the vocal cords to spasm and close and by others to describe death that occurs after leaving the water.This term is discouraged by the medical community not only because there is no accepted medical definition, but also because there is no distinction between the management of “wet” or “dry” drowning. The term “dry drowning” was primarily used in the past to describe the absence of liquid in the lungs, which doesn’t change how a drowning patient is treated.

According to Seth C. Hawkins, an emergency physician in active clinical practice andan assistant professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, “In the 20th century health care providers generally referred to ‘dry drowning’ as the phenomenon seen at autopsy where, rarely, there was no evidence of water exposure in the lungs, and the patient was presumed to have had laryngospasm (airway closure) during the drowning. This was seen in about 1 in 5 cases.”

Dr. Hawkins further elaborates that once this term was used, many variations started to appear in the press, causing immense confusion and misinformation to be released, which is why it is now discouraged by the medical community. “Some outliers in the medical literature still exist, but the biggest problem now is perpetuation in the popular press, which causes unnecessary fear and confusion,” Dr. Hawkins said.

How to Prevent Drowning

Luckily, there are a lot of ways one can prevent drowning and it starts with educating yourself on appropriate water safety measures. This includes supervising younger children, providing flotation devices to those that may require them, and periodically checking on those who have come out of the water. Swimming lessons are also a great way to ensure you and your children know how to properly enjoy themselves, as well as navigate through dangerous situations that may occur in the water.

Signs and Symptoms of Drowning

If you are going to be spending time near bodies of water this holiday season, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms related to drowning. After an individual is immersed or submerged in water, the most common symptoms of drowning include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing or chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Forgetfulness
  • Sleepiness or irritability

Children who experience mild breathing problems after getting out of the water will usually clear up on their own. However, it is important to get these symptoms checked out. Any problems that can develop after a child comes out of the water are usually treatable if medical care is sought right away.

What To Do When Drowning Occurs

If your child has suffered an accident in the water and is struggling to recover, call your pediatrician. Your child’s doctor will be able to talk you through next steps and suggest further medical treatment, if necessary. If you notice your child increasingly struggling to breathe, call 911 or immediately go to an emergency department.

Treatment for drowning depends on the severity of the child’s symptoms. Ranging from observation to intubation, the main goal is to increase the child’s blood flow in the lungs, helping their breathing to return to normal.


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Priyanka Kasnavia

Priyanka Kasnavia has been writing blogs for Simmons and Fletcher, P.C., for the past two years. She is a rising 2L at the University of Houston Law Center and her expertise centers on research, search engine optimization, and content creation.