I had never heard of dry drowning until social media picked it up a couple of summers ago. Maybe I did as a resident, but since I've never seen it, I'd forgotten the term. Either way, it isn't very common at all, but it is an emergency when it happens, so it's good that we all know that it can happen. People also use the term secondary drowning and some experts differentiate the two by whether or not water actually gets into the lungs, causing swelling of the lung tissue, or if water irritates the vocal cords, causing them to spasm and close off. Either situation is potentially life threatening and they have similar symptoms. Note: Please see the addendum at the bottom. Several articles have emerged since the original writing of this post that clearly indicate there is no such thing as dry drowning.
One of the reasons I think so many parents are worried is that it is common for kids to go under water: in the tub and in the pool. Many get water in their mouth or complain that it went up their nose. Few actually get any into their lungs, which is where it can cause problems. How can you know when you need to worry?
Most of us recall a time we coughed briefly after inhaling liquid, and we were fine. So when is it worrisome? It's when the water that gets into the lungs causes inflammation within the next day or two. This inflammation makes it hard for the lungs to work - the air tubes are swollen, so air can't get through. Treatment is giving oxygen, sometimes with a ventilator (breathing tube and machine) until the inflammation goes down.
Symptoms you need to recognize and act upon by taking your child to an ER:
- Cough: If your child has coughing for a minute or more after being in water, he's at risk. This indicates that the child is trying to clear the airways. If water got down there and they cough most up, some can remain behind and lead to inflammation over time. Watching your child carefully for the next 3-4 days is important. This can be hard to recognize initially, so a complete evaluation is important if any other symptoms develop.
- Difficulty breathing: Anyone who is struggling to breathe needs further evaluation. Signs can be rapid breathing, sucking in the ribs or the stomach, difficulty talking, or even a look of fear from difficult breathing.
- Near drowning: If your child had to be pulled out of the water, he should be evaluated in an ER. Even if he seems fine afterwards. The reaction is delayed, so they can seem to be 100% better and then go downhill.
- Behavior changes or confusion: If a child is confused, lethargic** or has a change in ability to recognize people, he should go to the ER. Serious illnesses can present with a change in mental status, including significant infections, concussion, heat exhaustion, brain tumors, and drowning. The ER doctor will ask what else has been going on to help identify the cause of confusion. **Many people misuse the term lethargic. Lethargic isn't the same thing as being tired after a long day. The medical definition is "Relatively mild impairment of consciousness resulting in reduced alertness and awareness; this condition has many causes but is ultimately due to generalized brain dysfunction."
- Vomiting: Vomiting after a day at the pool can be due to infection (from swallowing contaminated pool water), food poisoning (from food left in the heat too long) or dry drowning. It's best to check it out in the ER.
What will happen in the ER?
- If the doctor thinks your child may have swelling of the airways, he might order a chest x-ray to look for pulmonary edema (lung tissue swelling).
- An iv might be started to be able to give adequate fluids, since your child might not be up to drinking well.
- Oxygen levels will be monitored and extra oxygen might be given.
- Since the swelling worsens before it gets better, if there is a strong suspicion of dry drowning your child will be admitted for further observation.
- Some kids need help breathing and are put on a ventilator (breathing machine) until the swelling goes down.
Prevention is important!
- Childproof your home when you have little ones who might play in a pet water bowl or the toilet.
- Teach your kids water safety. Swimming lessons can help them learn skills. Tell them to never try to dunk each other. They shouldn't pretend they're drowning because it might distract a lifeguard from a true emergency.
- Learn infant and child CPR.
- If you have a pool or pond at home, be sure there is a fence limiting access from your house.
- Watch your kids closely and keep them within reach when they're in water until they are strong swimmers. When they are strong swimmers you can let them swim outside your reach as long as lifeguards are present.
- Learn what distress in the water looks like. The movie depiction of drowning with a lot of yelling and thrashing around is not what usually happens. If someone can verbalize that they're okay, they probably are. Drowning victims can't ask for help. There is a video linked to this page of what to look for with drowning that shows an actual rescue. From this site, signs of drowning:
- Head low in the water, mouth at water level
- Head tilted back with mouth open
- Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
- Eyes closed
- Hair over forehead or eyes
- Not using legs – Vertical
- Hyperventilating or gasping
- Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
- Trying to roll over on the back
- Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder
Addendum:I just read this post that gives references regarding drowning definitions. It appears I didn't forget learning about dry drowning in medical school. It isn't really a thing. The symptoms listed above that I recommend getting evaluated are still concerning symptoms, but they might be from another cause. Check this out: On "Dry Drowning"
Another: Drowning in a Sea of Misinformation: Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning