What is 'Dry Drowning'?

You pay close attention to your kids when they’re swimming or playing in the pool, splashing in the ocean. You make sure a lifeguard is on hand, and you never leave your little ones alone near any water -- even the tub. And that’s the right thing to do. But there’s still more you can do to keep them safe: Learn the signs of danger after they’re out of the water and what to do.

Health experts define drowning as trouble breathing after you get water into your airways. Sometimes that happens while swimming or bathing. But it can come from something as simple as getting water in your mouth or getting dunked.

Although it can be fatal, it isn't always. You can survive drowning if you get help right away.

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You may have heard of the terms “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning.” Those aren’t actually medical terms. But they do point to rare complications that you should know about and that are more common in children.

With so-called dry drowning, water never reaches the lungs. Instead, breathing in water causes your child's vocal cords to spasm and close up. That shuts off their airways, making it hard to breathe. You would start to notice those signs right away -- it wouldn’t happen out of the blue days later.

“Secondary drowning” is another term people use to describe another drowning complication. It happens if water gets into the lungs. There, it can irritate the lungs’ lining and fluid can build up, causing a condition called pulmonary edema. You’d likely notice your child having trouble breathing right away, and it might get worse over the next 24 hours.

Both events are very rare. They make up only 1%-2% of all drownings, says pediatrician James Orlowski, MD, of Florida Hospital Tampa.


Drowning complications can include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling extremely tired

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Your child may also have changes in behavior such as such as irritability or a drop in energy levels, which could mean the brain isn't getting enough oxygen.

What to Do

If your child has any breathing problems after getting out of the water, get medical help. Although in most cases the symptoms will go away on their own, it's important to get them checked out.

"The most likely course is that the symptoms are relatively mild and improve over time," says Mark Reiter, MD, past president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

Any problems that do develop are usually treatable if you get medical care right away. Your job is to keep a close eye on your child for the 24 hours after they have had any problems in the water.

If the symptoms don’t go away, or if they get worse, take your child to the emergency room, not your pediatrician's office. "Your child will need a chest X-ray, an IV, and be admitted for observation," says Raymond Pitetti, MD, associate medical director of the emergency department at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "That can't be done in an office."

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If your child has to stay in the hospital, they will probably get "supportive care.” This means that doctors will check their airways and monitor their oxygen level. If your child has severe trouble breathing, they may need to use a breathing tube for a while.


The most important thing you can do is help prevent drowning in the first place.

  • Always watch closely when your child is in or around water.
  • Only allow swimming in areas that have lifeguards.
  • Never let your child swim alone.
  • Never leave your baby alone near any amount of water -- even in your home.

Enroll yourself and your kids in water safety classes. There are even programs that introduce children 6 months to 3 years of age to the water.

If you have a pool at your home, make sure it's completely fenced.

Teenagers are more likely to have drowning incidents that are related to drugs and alcohol, so teach your kids about the risks, says Mike Gittelman, MD, co- director of the Comprehensive Children's Injury Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

Don’t let your guard down, even if the water isn't deep. Drowning can happen in any kind of water -- bathtubs, toilet bowls, ponds, or small plastic pools.

"Water safety is by far the most important thing," Reiter says.

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