What Is Dry Drowning? Warning Signs You Should Know

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I'm here in the beautiful, sunny Orlando, Florida, spring break capital. You've got college kids here from all over the world, determined to out party one another. You've got young kids hopped up on sugar, determined to drag their parents from amusement park to amusement park, making them get on every ride, stop at every ice cream parlor, swim in every pool. It's a happy time, but it can also be a tragic time, because whether you're swimming in the ocean, a lake, a pool, relaxing in your bathtub, or totally on dry ground, you could drown. Have you heard of dry drowning? What is dry drowning?


What Is Drowning?

Drowning is an injury to the lungs or to the respiratory system caused by the submersion or immersion in water, or due to water that has irritated the respiratory system or the lungs. Drowning causes over 4000 deaths in the United States each year and over 500,000 worldwide. Indeed, drowning is a very common cause of accidental deaths and childhood fatalities, and there's also something called dry drowning that can occur on totally dry land.


How Does Dry Drowning Happen?

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are both types of submersion injuries. Dry drowning occurs when one takes in a small amount of water through the nose or through the mouth, and that small amount of water irritates the vocal cords, causing them to spasm or essentially close, which can cause great respiratory difficulty, respiratory distress, and even death.


Dry drowning usually occurs within about an hour after the exposure to water, so easily a person or child could be at home, and far away from the pool, wherever the water exposure occurred, and still have the dry drowning and potentially die.




Dry drowning and Secondary Drowning

Secondary drowning occurs when the water has entered the respiratory system and it has actually gotten down into the lungs. It can cause the lungs to have increased secretions, inflammation, and you essentially get something called pulmonary edema.


This injury can occur up to 24 hours or even later than the water exposure, and again, the child or the person can be totally away from the water on dry land, and again, have respiratory distress, respiratory failure, or even death.


Dry drowning and secondary drowning, both types of submersion injuries that can occur even when you're away from the water after the water exposure.


Warning Signs Of Dry Drowning

So, what do you do? We're already trying to watch children make sure that they're properly supervised and that they're not submerged in water, and a lot of kids get a little water in their lungs or they cough, and we take them home. So, how in the world will you know if your child or your loved one potentially has dry drowning or submersion injury? Here are some of the warning signs.


If your child has had to be rescued out of some type of a water accident or what was perceived as a near drowning, then that is a warning sign that you need to watch to see if your child has any risk factors for dry drowning.


Another warning sign is if your child has excessive coughing, especially associated with difficulty breathing or if your child is having an increased work of breathing.

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How do you know? You look for physical signs. If your child has nostril flare, or if they're using the accessory muscles in their neck.  If you see their neck pulling while they're trying to breathe. If you look at their abdomen and you see their abdomen's going up and down, their chest is rising up and down, if you see the spaces between their ribs getting wider, narrower, wider, narrower, then your child is having an increased work of breathing, and this could be a warning sign of dry drowning.


Also, if your child has vomiting, and certainly if your child has a change in mental status. If they've been a really hyper, happy, playful child, and all of a sudden they're lethargic, or very fatigued, all of these could be signs of dry drowning. If you see these in your child or loved one, you must activate 9-1-1. You must get your child to a doctor as soon as possible.


How Common Is Dry Drowning or Secondary Drowning?

Fortunately, submersion injuries are very rare, and we believe that they account for only one to two percent of incidences of drowning. They're rare, but they're scary, and they can happen. That's why I really wanted to talk about them today, especially while more and more kids are out and about in the pool.


What Are the Risk Factors for Dry Drowning?

The risk factors are really similar to the risk factors for any drowning. They are inadequate adult supervision. That's right. You can have adults sitting by the pool, but they may not really be adequately supervising children, especially if adults are trying to enjoy their vacation, too, and if they're having adult beverages, or just really distracted with other adult company.


Another risk factor for drowning is an inability to swim well, or an overestimation of one's ability to swim. There's a lot of peer pressure among children and adults, but especially with children. They may be out there and they really want to prove that they're a great swimmer, even if they're not such a great swimmer, especially if that child has peers and those peers swim really well, that child may jump in the deep end knowing good and doggone well that the child shouldn't do it.


Other risk factors for drowning, particularly in teenagers, middle schoolers and adults is alcohol or illicit drug use. Again, during spring break season, summer break season, vacationing, being around pools, having fun in the sun, a lot of people associate this with having a few libations, a few spirits, or even some illicit drugs.


Alcohol has been shown to be involved in over 50% of adult drownings, so alcohol and illicit drug use are risk factors for drowning.




This ends my brief overview of what is dry drowning? And secondary drowning, submersion injuries. I hate being a 'Debbie Downer', but it's hard for me to enjoy this fun in the sun out here by the pool without remembering to bring a few health tips.


Be sure that as you prepare to have fun over these spring vacations and summer vacations, that you take extra precautions. If you are out having fun in the sun and there are children involved especially, make sure that they have adequate supervision, that there's no heavy alcohol or any illicit drug use involved in the parents who are supervising the children, or the parents and adults who are going to be swimming themselves.


Also, remember that even though dry drowning and secondary drowning are rare, they still can occur and they're very serious. I keep mentioning children because dry drowning and secondary drowning occur mostly in children between the ages of one and four, so they are the ones who are at high risk, but again, everyone, even adults can be at risk for drowning.


As always, I want you to prioritize your health, take care of you, and do your best to live your healthiest, happiest life. Please comment down below if you've ever had any experience with any type of drowning or any near-drowning experience. By the way you might also like my article on Signs And Symptoms Of Allergic Rhinitis

Dr. Frita - Frita McRae Fisher, M.D.
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