What to Know About “Dry Drowning”

August 5, 2022
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Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 0 to 4 and the second leading cause of death for children 0 to 17. But while most Connecticut residents understand the act of drowning, how to spot it, and ways to prevent it, other conditions such as “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are causing concern and confusion. 

The first alleged “dry drowning” case hit the news in 2008 when a 10-year-old boy from South Carolina reportedly died days after inhaling water while swimming in a pool. It was later determined that the boy died of a health condition called “secondary drowning.” Still, the widespread media attention to the possibility of “dry drowning” and the idea that children could die days after water exposure made parents panic. 

While neither “dry drowning” nor “secondary drowning” is an approved medical term, they refer to health complications that are related to or lead to instances of unintentional drowning. Connecticut parents should stay educated on the signs and symptoms of any condition that can harm a child in the water and know how to prevent these tragic accidents this summer.

Types of Drowning

There are three types of drownings parents may hear about in mainstream media this summer: unintentional drowning, secondary drowning, and dry drowning. All of these conditions can prove to be fatal without emergency and medical intervention. Knowing the differences between each one can help parents prevent tragedies from occurring and spot concerning behaviors in time to seek life-saving medical attention.

Unintentional Drowning

Unintentional drowning is the leading cause of death in children 0 to 4 and the only medically recognized term among the three. Despite popular belief, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) reports that unintentional drowning does not occur all at once but in stages:

  • Unintentional drowning begins when water invades the airways and is aspirated into the throat and down the vocal cords triggering a child to remove the water by coughing.
  • When water cannot exit the body, the child begins to inhale, causing excess water to fill the lungs and leading to low levels of oxygen, also known as hypoxemia.
  • If the water is still not removed through medical interventions such as CPR, a child will become unconscious and go into cardiac arrest. 

This entire process takes only a few minutes; it does not occur over a long period. Children cannot drown hours or days after exposure to water, as experts from Mayo Clinic have confirmed.

Secondary Drowning

While often used interchangeably, “secondary drowning” and “dry drowning” are not referring to the same conditions. According to Mayo Clinic, secondary drowning–while not a medically accepted term–refers to delayed illnesses from aspirating too much water. 

Most of the time, the body can absorb extra water aspirated into the lungs over time; secondary drowning refers to the rare instances when a body does not.  In these cases, water aspirated into the lungs irritates the lining, causing pulmonary edema, a condition involving excess fluid build-up and resulting in a lack of oxygen to the body. This disorder is mainly caused by pre-existing heart issues but can occur with harmful exposure to water. 

Symptoms of pulmonary edema generally worsen within 5 to 8 hours after onset and include difficulty breathing, uncontrollable coughing, wheezing, extreme fatigue, disorientation, and slurred speech. Mayo Clinic reports that there are cases where symptoms develop over time, but it depends on the cause of the illness.

Dry Drowning

The act of “dry drowning” doesn’t refer to any type of drowning but more to possible health conditions that, if occurring in the water, could lead someone to drown. This could include a heart attack, stroke, or rare diseases such as laryngospasm. As defined by the Cleveland Clinic, this illness affects only 2% of drowning victims. It leads the body to block its own airway when water enters, leading to suffocation rather than fatal aspiration when drowning. 

The term “dry drowning” came about in 2008 when several stories connected rare child fatalities to water exposure occurring days prior. Sadly, many “dry drowning” deaths reported over the years were caused by underlying health conditions such as heart disease or rare bacterial infections. Still, the widespread misinformation has made parents unnecessarily worry about their children drowning even days after swimming or playing in the water. 
Because dry drowning deaths could encompass any health condition that could pose a drowning risk, health experts quoted in a recent USA Today article advise parents to be careful. Safety advocates recommend avoiding terms such as dry, wet, near, passive, and silent to describe types of drowning to prevent further misinformation from spreading.

How to Prevent All Drowning Accidents

The good news for parents is that almost all drowning accidents, no matter their classification, can be prevented with supervision and preparation. Children are only as safe in the water as we allow them to be, and they need their parents and guardians to prepare for emergencies. 

The American Red Cross provides the following safety suggestions for keeping your family healthy and safe this summer in the water: 

  • Supervision: Never allow children to swim alone, especially children under four. Remember: floatation devices are not a substitute for supervision. Unintentional drowning accidents happen quickly, and keeping close to your children in the water will help prevent swimming hazards from causing them harm. 
  • Stay Educated: Review all the signs of drowning and how to react when symptoms occur to spot distress before it becomes life-threatening. Signs of drowning may include thrashing, trouble breathing, gulping, wheezing, or children who appear entirely submerged under water. 
  • Reach or Throw: If you are not in the water next to someone drowning, do not jump in. Reach or throw flotation devices first in an emergency to prevent further distress. 

Know CPR: CPR is a life-saving process that can save a child who has aspirated too much water. You can find CPR certification courses in Connecticut through the Red Cross. Consider doing it with other parents in your social group for extra protection!

Jacobs & Wallace Summer Accident Attorneys

If you or someone you love is injured in an accident, you need an experienced law firm to represent you. Jacobs & Wallace, PLLC, has decades of experience fighting for the rights of Connecticut’s injured victims. Please contact us today for a FREE case evaluation: 203-332-7700.


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