The terms dry drowning and secondary drowning have been used interchangeably and are causing a great deal of confusion. The damage done by drowning is caused by a volume of water in the lungs restricting oxygen to the brain. Our bodies react to any water in the lungs by expelling it, sometimes violently. However, in rare cases, the lung tissue can become inflamed and fluid generated by the body may build up.
What is Dry Drowning?
When a child accidentally draws bath water or swimming pool water into their lungs, it can cause a great deal of coughing. These hacking spasms function to force water away from the respiratory system. However, in very rare cases, laryngeal spasms brought on by coughing can actually shut down the airway. Victims of this condition show fatal oxygen deprivation but no water in the lungs in an autopsy. Stated in plain English, dry drowning occurs when water is inhaled through the nose or mouth, and the water triggers a spasm in the airway, causing it to close and restrict breathing. Secondary drowning is a related condition known as pneumonitis. Children suffering from this condition take water into their lungs and expel it, but the lung tissue becomes inflamed.
A child suffering from a spasming larynx will be choking, gasping and unable to speak. You will know immediately that this is occurring, and many times, this condition will clear on its own once the child calms down. If possible, have the child breathe through their nose to open the glottis, or space between the vocal cords, so that they can take in oxygen and reduce panic. If your child does inhale some water and you are worried about secondary drowning symptoms or pneumonitis, monitor them for the next few hours. If they suffer from wheezing, fatigue, vomiting or disorientation, seek emergency help. Your child will exhibit symptoms of secondary drowning within just a few hours of the incident.
It should be noted that secondary drowning and dry drowning are both extremely rare conditions. Wet drowning is the number one cause of preventable death in children. Teaching your children pool safety rules and how to float, swim, and blow bubbles in the water so that they learn not to inhale underwater is critical. Until your child can swim with some expertise, invest in life jackets that they can’t get out of on their own, rather than arm floaties. When in the pool with a toddler, maintain physical contact with them at all times.