Dry Drowning: What You Need to Know

By: Mollie Shauger | Monday, June 17, 2019 | Aquatics

A girl uses a flotation device in the water. Swim lessons, like those provided at the YMCA, can reduce the risk of drowning.

Terms like “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning” have often been used to describe scenarios where a child was submerged in water and later developed respiratory problems. But terms like these are being ditched by health experts for a more concise and accurate description - drowning.

Either you drown and survive or don’t survive. People can develop complications from drowning episodes after they’ve occurred, but medical professionals say it’s rare that they result in death.

What is drowning?

The World Health Organization defines drowning as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.”

When someone is drowning, lung damage and exposure to liquid cause major lung passageways to spasm, stopping airflow. Ultimately, people who drown die from a lack of oxygen.

Drowning can be fatal or nonfatal, and the extent of an injury from drowning depends on how long the person was without oxygen.

Drowning is silent and can happen in as little as 20-60 seconds. It doesn’t always look like how it’s depicted in movies and on TV, with splashing and yelling for help.

Drowning takes an average of 3,500-4,000 lives per year in the U.S., accounting for an average of 10 fatal drownings per day. It’s also estimated that for every drowning death, another five to 10 victims receives hospital-related care for non-fatal drowning injuries.

So where did all these alternative names for drowning come from?

The 2017 death of a 4-year-old boy a week after he was briefly submerged in water was widely reported in the media as a case of “dry” or “secondary drowning.” However, according to a 2018 report in the Cleveland Journal of Medicine, an autopsy found that the cause of death was myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, and not related in any way to drowning.

Terms like “dry drowning,” “secondary drowning” or “delayed drowning” were more frequently used before drowning and its causes were fully understood. Now, many health organizations and physicians discourage the use of them as medically accepted terms because of the confusion they can cause, although they are still used in the public.

What should families know about drowning?

Research has shown that people do not unexpectedly die of drowning days or weeks later with no preceding symptoms. Lungs do not “fill up with water,” and water does not need to be pumped out of the lungs. People who have drowned and have minimal symptoms usually get better or worse within four to eight hours. In rare cases, their health does deteriorate. New symptoms are unlikely related to the drowning, however, and could be caused by other underlying conditions.

An article by Emergency Medicine News states:

“After a mild or moderate drowning, inflammation and infections in the lungs can cause the initial symptoms to get worse. Parents should seek additional care whenever a child has an excessive cough, isn't breathing normally, or isn't acting right immediately after being pulled from the water. If the child is 100 percent normal upon exiting the water and concerning symptoms develop more than eight hours later, then parents should seek care and providers should consider diagnoses other than primary drowning.”

If a child has been knocked over in the water, ingested water, or came close to drowning, keep a close eye on him or her for the next 24 hours. Seek medical help if they show symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing and/or chest discomfort
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Behavior changes
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Foam at the nose or mouth

Water safety

Drowning is preventable. Learning to swim can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for 1- to 4-year-olds who take formal swim lessons.

The Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges offers free swim lessons to children during its Safety Around Water Week in June. Learn more about year-round swim lessons and water safety education at your local branch. As part of the Y’s Family First Initiative, every parent-child swim lesson is free with membership.



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