What is a dry drowning?

Dry drowning and secondary drowning

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about kids and water safety.

I want to add some information about two little known conditions called “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning.” They’re relatively rare, thank goodness, but can happen up to 24 hours following a near-drowning when parents think their child is no longer in danger.

Both a dry drowning and a secondary drowning occur out of the water, after a child inhales some water. He or she might look panicked and cough violently for a short time. Often these kids then feel well enough to continue swimming or playing.

A parent might think, “Phew, crisis over.”

BUT, something rather insidious is going on within the lung tissue. One of two things can happen.

In a dry drowning, the water irritates the vocal chords and they spasm, closing the windpipe. Almost immediately after leaving the water, the child will have trouble breathing and can lose consciousness and suffocate to death unless he gets medical help right away.

In a secondary or delayed drowning, water is trapped within the lungs and causes an inflammatory response. Over the next few hours, more fluid leaks into the lungs’ small air sacs, the alveoli, until the lungs can’t get enough oxygen. The child’s blood oxygen level falls and she eventually loses consciousness. Without immediate treatment, she will die.

I’ve seen this type of tragedy reported in the news as a child going to bed seemingly healthy, and then not waking up. It’s just too sad for words.

And it’s preventable if parents know about the conditions and what to look for.

Know the symptoms

Child safety experts recommend that any child who suffers a near drowning incident be evaluated by a physician, even if the child seems OK.

In a dry drowning when the larynx spasms, a child will be in pretty immediate distress and unable to breath. Call 911.

If your child wasn’t actually in danger of drowning but still inhaled a large amount of water while playing and looked panicked or coughed violently for a time, watch for the following symptoms over the next 24 hours:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Labored breathing
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy or sleepiness
  • Vomiting

These are all trouble signs and you should call your child’s doctor. If your child is really having trouble breathing, call 911 or go straight to the emergency room.

Again, these types of out-of-water drownings are pretty rare, but they are tragic when they happen and they are preventable.

For more information on dry drowning and secondary drowning, or children’s’ safety in general, check out my Resources page under Children’s Health & Safety.


Frugal Nurse


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