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? Not so fast. “Dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are getting more media attention because they can occur when you least expect it — outside of the water.

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, which would start to occur almost immediately and could continue for several days.

Signs of dry drowning can be obvious, but signs of secondary drowning or delayed drowning are much more subtle. 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.

Although both of these occurrences are rare, they are extremely dangerous. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms or has any difficulty breathing after swimming, seek medical attention right away. If symptoms persist, go to the Pediatric Emergency Department.

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

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