Dry Drowning: What You Need to Know

Healthy Living

July 11, 2017

In the heat of summer, jumping into a pool, lake or ocean offers a refreshing break from the norm. You’re probably aware of the dangers of drowning, but a lesser-known danger can occur minutes or even hours after exiting the water. There are two types of drowning that occur after you’ve already dried off: dry drowning and secondary drowning. The following information is meant to provide basic education on the issues and help to prevent occurrences, though a medical professional should be consulted if dry or secondary drowning is suspected.

Dry Drowning

Dry drowning occurs outside of the water, usually a few minutes to an hour after swimming. It’s caused by a struggle in the water, such as rough play, being tossed around by a wave in the ocean, or having your head dunked under water. Dry drowning occurs when water is swallowed and enters the airway, causing difficulty breathing. It’s not as obvious to spot, but it can be fatal, especially to children. If you don’t seek medical attention right away, dry drowning can lead to complications such as illness, tissue damage, and death.

Secondary Drowning

Similar to dry drowning, secondary drowning also occurs outside of the water and after some sort of struggle. In this case, however, swallowed water does not enter the airway but instead goes into the lungs, causing inflammation and swelling. This can lead to suffocation, breathing difficulties and tissue damage just like dry drowning. Unlike dry drowning, secondary drowning can occur a few hours or even a day after swimming.

Spotting the Symptoms

Dry and secondary drowning aren’t common occurrences, but they do happen, especially after you’ve had a tough time in the water. Whether you frequent the water yourself or have kids who do, you should know the symptoms to watch out for when it comes to secondary and dry drowning. Here are some things to check for:

  • Coughing and/or choking
  • Difficulty breathing, including not being able to take deep enough breaths
  • Sleepiness or decreased energy
  • Change in behavior or forgetfulness, which could be caused by a lack of oxygen
  • Vomiting

Wondering when to see a doctor? Drowning shouldn’t be left up to chance. If you notice any symptoms in yourself, other adults or your children, go to the doctor right away, or call 911 for breathing problems. Anytime someone needs to be pulled from the water, you should take that person directly to the ER just to be safe. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to unseen symptoms, and dry or secondary drowning symptoms don’t always manifest right away.

Preventing Drowning

The American Osteopathic Association recommends several preventive measures that can reduce the risk of all types of drowning. These include:

  • Swimming in areas that are monitored by lifeguards
  • Teaching children how to swim as early as possible and never allowing them to swim without adult supervision
  • Discouraging rough play in water, such as head dunking, and staying out of rough waters
  • Wearing a lifejacket

If you see someone who appears to be drowning, notify a lifeguard immediately. If there is no lifeguard, call 911. Never jump into the water with a drowning person. Although she may not intentionally try to pull you under, a drowning person will instinctively push you under to try to keep her own head above water. Use a pool skimmer or a large stick to grab her and pull her to land.

Too often, a drowning person won’t be able to call for help or attract life-saving attention because she’s exerting all her energy on taking in oxygen. Constant vigilance is key when it comes to the water. Whether you’re heading to the beach or just out back to your own pool, keep these safety tips in mind to avoid the unthinkable.