What Is Dry Drowning?

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Summer days can get pretty steamy, and the rising temperatures mean more time spent poolside or at the beach. Water games are a great way to cool off during a heatwave, but there are some cases where you need to be careful.

Drowning is the leading cause of death in children between the ages of one and four years old, and 77 percent of drowning deaths are children younger than five. Summer is primetime for drowning incidents, which makes sense considering most people spend a lot of time in the water.

What you may not know, though, is that there are different types of drowning, including dry drowning.

Dry Drowning Vs. Secondary Drowning

When one mentions the term “drowning,” we typically think of the unconscious swimmer receiving CPR. However, drowning isn’t always immediate. You may experience complications called dry drowning or secondary drowning. These are the non-medical terms for describing delayed symptoms of being submerged in water.

Secondary drowning occurs when water gets into the lungs and irritates the lining of the lungs. Fluid builds up, which then causes swelling. Buildup leads to breathing issues that get worse over 24 hours.

Secondary drowning is not to be confused with dry drowning, a similar complication that can occur. Dry drowning happens when someone inhales water, but it never reaches the lungs. The water hits the vocal cords, causing spasms that make the vocal cords close.

These spasms are also known as laryngospasms, which is just a fancy word for the airways closing up.

Dry drowning is also different than typical drowning because you aren’t swallowing water. Unlike secondary drowning, you’re likely to notice dry drowning right away. It’s easier to spot because the airways become closed off and it becomes hard to breathe.

kids jumping in swimming pool

Losing oxygen causes distress to the body, and children who have heart issues or asthma are at a higher risk of problems than those considered “healthy.”

If left untreated, these complications can cause respiratory issues, brain damage, and death. If you notice problems breathing after swimming, it’s crucial to get to an emergency room as soon as you can. While symptoms will probably go away on their own, it’s worth the trip to rule out these complications.

Dry Drowning Symptoms And Treatment

As children are less likely to be confident in the water, dry drowning is most common among young kids. While swimming with your child, there are signs to look for if they have had an accident:

  • Problems breathing
  • Inability to speak
  • Increased irritability
  • Unusual behavior or forgetfulness
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue or sleepiness after swimming
  • Throwing up

Even if these symptoms seem minor, you should call for emergency help right away. While you’re waiting for help, keeping calm can make a huge difference. Relaxing your body helps your windpipe relax more easily.

After help arrives and you or your child are in stable condition, the ambulance will take you to the hospital for observation. You’ll likely get breathing treatments and will be monitored to check for secondary drowning and other issues. The hospital may also order chest x-rays to rule out any water in your lungs as well.

In most cases, someone who was a victim of drowning will be back to normal around 4–8 hours after the incident occurred.

Preventing Dry Drowning

To prevent dry drowning, you should follow any rules that protect against drowning in general. The most important thing to do is to make sure you’re watching your children at all times. If that isn’t possible, you should make sure a lifeguard or another trusted adult is on watch while you’re unable to.

lifeguard at the beach

Drowning looks nothing like it does in the media. Rather than frantic and panicked splashes, real drowning is typically silent and happens quickly. The body is so busy trying to maintain oxygen levels that you can’t usually call for help.

While swimming with your kids, look out for these signs:

  • Head is low in the water
  • Head is tilted back and their mouth is open
  • Eyes are glassy and wide open or shut tightly
  • No leg movement and an almost vertical position
  • Failed attempts to swim
  • Hyperventilating or gasps

It’s also worth noting that drowning doesn’t always occur during swim time, and it doesn’t have to be deep either. Drowning incidents can happen anywhere from the bathtub to being splashed in the face.

Here are some other helpful tips the CDC recommends to prevent drowning:

  • Know necessary swim skills: The more confident a person is in the water, the less likely they will fall victim to drowning.
  • Know basic CPR: This is a must for any parent and can make all the difference if something happens to your child, and you’re waiting for an ambulance.
  • Fence off or properly cover your pool: If you have a pool at home, make sure it’s securely closed off when you aren’t using it. 
  • Use a life jacket: Life jackets are necessary for open water and poolside for unconfident swimmers.
  • Don’t make yourself a victim when helping another: A panicked swimmer can pull the rescuer under and escalate the situation. In deep, open water, the rescuer should use a pole or lifebuoy to bring someone to safety.

According to the CDC, three children die every day from drowning. Following these tips will significantly reduce the chance you or your child will have issues in the water.

Swim Safely, Be Alert

The thought of drowning is scary, especially since you don’t necessarily need to be underwater to be affected. Dry drowning is not terribly common, but it is a complication to be aware of, and does occur at times among children who aren’t confident swimmers. Swim lessons are encouraged at age one for this very reason.

Of course, accidents do happen. However, taking the necessary precautions and following any set rules at a public swimming area can significantly reduce the risk of dry drowning. It’s also worth keeping in mind that many drownings happen at home. So, parents should create their own set of pool rules for at-home pools.

Swimming doesn’t have to be scary. It’s an effective and fun way to cool off during the summer. Just be alert at all times, know when to act and call for help, and your family will be able to enjoy the physical activity and bonding time together.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.