’Dry Drowning’: What Parents Need To Know

July 26, 2019
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The concept of ‘dry drowning’ has been frightening American parents for years. Living in fear that your child could become fatally ill every time they accidentally swallow water is terrifying. And stories that claim some children have died days and even a week after a swimming accident can cause any parent to have nightmares.
According to the National Safety Council (N.S.C.), 3,709 people died of unintentional drowning accidents in 2017, and more than 12 percent of these victims were under the age of four. Drowning is the leading cause of death for young children in our country; fortunately, dry drowning is not.

Connecticut parents who love swimming with their children do not have to avoid the water this summer to stay safe. Understanding what dry drowning really is can take immense pressure off of families and allow them to focus on the real dangers their children face in the water.

‘Dry Drowning’ Myths

Mass media outlets ran with the term ‘dry drowning’ after the heartbreaking death of a 4-year-old Texas boy in 2017. According to CNN, Frankie Delgado died of dry drowning a week after swimming in the ocean with his family.

Reports state Frankie was knocked down by a wave and submerged underwater for only a few seconds. Frankie died a week later from what doctors attributed to dry drowning after finding fluid surrounding his heart and in his lungs.

Unfortunately, the cause of Frankie’s death turned out to be a rare heart condition unrelated to the water incident. Health professionals have been attempting to debunk the myths surrounding dry drowning ever since, with little success due to the extreme media frenzy that followed the initial story.

Medical experts want parents to know that “dry drowning” “secondary drowning” and “near drowning” are not medically accepted terms or conditions. Healthy children do not die from drowning days after an accident, nor from inhaling small amounts of water.

The majority of children who experience fatal water accidents other than drowning have underlying health conditions to explain the bizarre and tragic reactions to water. Understanding how drowning affects the body can immensely reduce the panic some parents feel every time their children swim, and allow them to concentrate on how to prevent drowning accidents in the first place.

The Process of Drowning

A study in Science Daily published last year describes drowning as a process- not a single event. Experts state that drowning can be mild, moderate, or severe. There are several stages that occur when someone is drowning that can be interrupted at any time by medical interventions.

The Dedham Health Foundation identifies five stages of drowning all parents should be familiar with:

  1. Surprise: When a child begins to drown, their body will naturally panic. Children may try to move their arms and legs frantically to float. If they are able to propel themselves above the water, this will look like thrashing. However, below the water, onlookers may assume the child is swimming underwater. Children who are struggling to breath will most likely not be able to scream for help or make noticeable sounds of distress.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding: At this stage, a child is not completely underwater and begins to involuntary hold their breath. Water has entered the mouth, and the child is no longer able to swallow or spit it out. The airway is closed, and the child begins to lose oxygen needed to stay conscious.
  3. Unconsciousness: Without oxygen, the body will shut down. The child will go into respiratory arrest after breathing stops. There will be no breathing sounds or chest movements at this stage, and the body will not be able to restart itself without medical intervention at this point.
  4. Hypoxicconvulsion: Lack of oxygen in the body will deprive the brain and lead to convulsions. A child’s skin may turn blue as this occurs, and they will appear to be jerking violently in the water.
  5. Death: Once breathing and circulation have stopped, a drowning victim goes into cardiac arrest. The heart stops pumping blood, and the organs begin to shut down.

Terms such as ‘dry drowning’ confuse parents into believing that health conditions triggered by swimming are a different type of drowning when they aren’t. Because these terms have become so widely used among the general public, some medical professionals are adapting them to identify stages of drowning, while making it clear these are labels and not actual medical conditions. Here’s how the Science Daily study outlined the terms:

Dry Drowning

Experts who believe in using the term dry drowning will often use it to describe a rare condition called laryngospasm. According to Healthline, laryngospasm occurs when the vocal cords suddenly spasm and block air (or water) from entering.

This condition can be brought on by stress or anxiety, which is common among drowning victims. Deaths in these cases will show little to no water in the lungs, prompting the label of ‘dry’ drowning.

Secondary Drowning

Secondary drowning is a term used to diagnose drowning victims who have suffered subsequent injuries or death days after a drowning incident. This term does not mean victims can continue to drown days after they are in the water, but rather that the aspiration of water sparks a secondary medical condition that causes someone to worsen over time.

One example of secondary drowning could include when a person inhales water that is not reabsorbed into the body once it enters the lungs. Sedentary water in the lungs could cause someone to have trouble breathing and lead to additional health concerns such as infections.

Near Drowning

The term “near drowning” is used often to describe a drowning incident that did not end in a fatality. Medical professionals, however, do not widely use this term as drowning does not have to end in death to be considered drowning.

Drowning puts the body into severe stress and fear. These extreme physical and emotional consequences can trigger hidden health conditions that appear to be related to drowning but are not. Thankfully, most drowning accidents are entirely preventable if parents know what to do when swimming with their kids.

All Drowning Is 100% Preventable

The terms you use to describe drowning mean nothing if someone you love has suffered a fatal accident. Connecticut parents can reduce their child’s chance of drowning immensely by following these prevention steps outlined by the N.S.C.:

  • Never leave your child alone. Always watch your child in the water or take them with you if you have to step away.
  • Teach your child to swim to decrease their chances of drowning if they fall in the water.
  • Don’t rely on lifeguards to keep your kids safe. They are there to react in an emergency- not to babysit.
  • Don’t let young children play around drains and suction fittings prevent falls into the pool.
  • Drinking alcohol while supervising swimming children is a bad idea. Find a sober supervisor or do not drink.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of water. Even rivers and lakes can have undertows that can put excellent swimmers in danger.
  • Always have a first aid kit and emergency contacts handy.
  • Keep emergency flotation devices nearby.
  • Get trained in CPR to increase the likelihood of saving someone’s life.
  • Check the water first if you realize a child is missing. It only takes a few minutes for a child to drown.

For more information on how to swim safely this summer, the N.S.C. has tons of resources parents and families can take advantage of.

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