Quick Dose: What Is Dry Drowning?

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You’ve kept a watchful eye on your little one while he was swimming and did everything to keep him safe by the water. The coast is clear, right? Terms like “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are getting more media attention, because of how scary they sound. Rest assured, both of these occurrences are extremely rare and unlikely to occur. The important thing is they act as a reminder to exercise water safety at all times.

What has been coined as “dry drowning” can occur when water enters the mouth or nose and causes a spasm in the airway. The spasm traps the water and closes up the airway. Look for signs like coughing, chest pain and trouble breathing. Secondary or delayed drowning happens when water gets trapped in the lungs, causing an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response can lead the lungs to slowly fill up with a fluid called pulmonary edema, which can cause your child to have shortness of breath, irregular breathing or suddenly become extremely tired. While coughing does not necessarily warrant an emergency room visit, be vigilant if signs persist and go to the Pediatric Emergency Department.

Drowning is currently the second leading cause of unintentional injury death of children ages 1 to 14, but can be prevented by taking proper precautions. Here are some things parents can do to increase safety by the water:

  • Enroll children in swimming lessons
  • Use life jackets
  • Place barriers with locked gates near pools
  • Swim in areas with lifeguards
  • Learn to perform CPR

Above all, always have adult supervision near a pool. For more water safety information, visit our summer safety tips.

- Mohammad I. Akhtar, MD, Lurie Children's at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, Pediatric Critical Care Medicine

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