Is Dry Drowning a real concern?
Every summer, the term “dry drowning” makes its rounds on social media.
Drowning is a serious issue and water safety is of the utmost importance.
Drowning can be many things—and some are fatal and some are not.
However, dry drowning isn’t exactly a medical issue and is a misnomer as are the terms near-drowning and secondary drowning.
Let’s discuss terminology you may have heard:
Sometimes, you will hear the term “near-drowning,” which usually means the person was drowning but didn’t die, but honestly the terminology is confusing. A person can drown and survive just like someone can be injured in a car crash and survive. It’s still called drowning.
Many social media posts or accounts will spread stories about a child who went underwater for a few seconds or longer before being pulled to safety. They cough up water and they did not require CPR or any resuscitation. They seem normal and go back to swimming, playing, etc. They cough and suffer a laryngospasm (spasm of their airway).
Secondary drowning or delayed drowning
This also is not a diagnosable condition, but has been thrown around across social media and the media. This has been described as when water gets into the lungs. The water in the lungs can cause irritation and/or inflammation in the lungs leading to difficulty breathing, feeling unwell, and sometimes vomiting.
The misuse and misunderstanding of “Dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” cause a fear that an amazing looking child will just simply deteriorate with no signs of symptoms. When in actuality, there are symptoms to monitor. And that is the misconception I want to debunk in this blog.
Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment (AKA an inability to breathe) from being submerged in a liquid such as water. There is a spectrum of drowning. The problem is people think all drowning is fatal, when it’s not. Someone who drowns and survives had a non-fatal drowning NOT a non-fatal NEAR-DROWNING.
But, it’s important to know WHEN to seek medical attention after water play or a submersion in water.
- Without question, if your child is pulled from the water with no pulse,; CPR must be done immediately and 911 needs to be called.
- If your child is pulled from the water but has a pulse, seek medical attention if they’re:
- not acting normally (breathing but incoherent, out of it, or just not interactive at baseline)
- Having an excessive and persistent cough
- Not breathing normally (rapid breathing)
- Foaming at the mouth
- If your child was playing in water, went underneath, and comes up coughing; monitor. If they’re playful, it’s okay to go about your daily activities. Their body did what it needed and the cough likely protected water from going down their airway. Within the next 24 hours, you can continue your normal activities, but monitor the following:
- Increased work of (where their chest is moving in and out rapidly or their nostrils are flaring in and out rapidly)
- Persistent cough (this could be a coincidental concurrent virus, however if the cough is persistent and worsening; a medical evaluation is warranted).
- Fever with cough
- Persistent vomiting
- Not interactive at baseline
The hard reality in my clinical experience is many children can have viruses and illnesses that occur within 24-48 hours after water play. So, a parent is panicking that it’s secondary drowning/dry drowning/drowning or whatever terminology people are using.
If your child is looking unwell with any of the symptoms above after water play at any point, call your Pediatrician or go to the ER. We will make sure their lungs sound okay, we will evaluate their breathing, and confirm whether it’s a virus or any concern of drowning.
I encourage you to abandon the use of “dry-drowning” and “secondary drowning” as it’s often attached with fear and misinformation.
Drowning is drowning and can have a spectrum from mild to severe symptoms.
Do remember; an asymptomatic child who came out of the water will not just have a sudden demise related to water inhalation. There WILL be symptoms mentioned above that will alert you to seek medical attention.