What is Dry Drowning?

August 2, 2018
dry drowning

Due to the risk of accidental drowning, responsible parents and caregivers would never dream of letting small children play in or near bodies of water unsupervised. Like all mammals, humans are “hard-wired” at birth to avoid drowning by automatically holding the breath whenever the face is submerged in water.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible for babies and small children to accidentally swallow water, or to attempt to breathe in water. When that occurs, a phenomenon informally known as “dry drowning” may result. While it is not technically a medical condition, dry drowning reflects an actual, rare complication of drowning that may develop if a child attempts to take a breath and inhales water accidentally.
Most of us think of drowning as an event that occurs in open water, perhaps because a non-swimmer panics and goes under. But drowning can occur even in a few inches of water, such as in a baby bath, for example. Drowning is defined as difficulty breathing due to water in the airways.
Sometimes the effects of drowning may persist even on dry land. In the case of “dry drowning,” problems may even arise when a child gets liquid “down the wrong pipe” while attempting to drink. Before water reaches the lungs, the vocal cords squeeze shut in an attempt to prevent water from entering the lungs.
This spasm may continue, making it difficult or impossible to get air into the lungs. Needless to say, this could result in suffocation and should be taken seriously. Signs of this unofficial condition will typically manifest almost immediately after dunking underwater, or after “choking” on a drink.

How Does Secondary Drowning Occur?

So-called secondary drowning (also an unofficial term/diagnosis) occurs when water reaches the lungs and triggers a reaction that makes breathing difficult. The presence of water or another liquid can prompt a reaction by the lining of the lungs, causing the buildup of fluid. This is a potentially dangerous condition called pulmonary edema.
Breathing difficulties will typically manifest almost immediately after a person has inhaled liquid into the lungs. Although the condition may improve on its own, sometimes breathing problems worsen over the following 24 hours. It should be noted that these types of drowning complications are exceptionally rare, accounting for just 1% to 2% of all drownings.

Symptoms of Dry/Secondary Drowning

  • coughing
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • extreme fatigue/low energy
  • irritability

When to Visit PhysicianOne Urgent Care

While post-drowning complications are extremely rare, you should always seek immediate medical attention if a child shows signs of breathing difficulties after playing in or around water. Often, symptoms will subside on their own, but in rare instances, the affected person’s ability to breathe properly could be severely affected.
If symptoms worsen, take your child to an emergency room or PhysicianOne Urgent Care rather than your pediatrician’s office. In the case of post-drowning complications, providers will typically need access to equipment and services such as X-ray machines and IV fluids that are not available at a pediatrician’s office.
PhysicianOne Urgent Care is here 7 days per week for high-quality urgent care, with X-ray and IV fluids available, no appointment necessary. Contact us at 1.855.349.2828, or stop in today for a convenient, walk-in visit. If you’re looking to save time, find a location near you and check in online today.

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