Dry Drowning & What Parents Need to Know

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 5.32.47 PMSummer is in full swing and many of us are spending more time near the water. If you’re like most parents you probably assume that once your child exits the water their risk of drowning is over. But “dry” drowning, or “secondary” drowning can occur hours after your child has finished swimming for the day.

What is it?

The term “dry drowning” can often be misleading because it has nothing to do with heat or sand, and everything to do with water. In dry drowning, someone takes in a small amount of water through his or her nose and/or mouth, which causes a spasm in the airway, causing it to close up. In secondary drowning, a little bit of water gets into the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling that makes it difficult or impossible for the body to transfer oxygen to carbon dioxide and vice versa. Dry drowning usually happens soon after exiting the water, but with secondary drowning, there can be a delay of up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress. Both can cause trouble breathing and, in worst-case scenarios, death.

Is it common?

Rest assured! Dry drowning and secondary drowning incidents, although incredibly scary, are pretty rare. Doctors estimate that only about 1-2% of drowning incidents are a result of dry or secondary drowning.

Even though these incidents are rare, because they are potentially life threatening, it’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms.


  • Water rescue- Any child pulled from the water should seek medical attention.
  • Coughing- Persistent coughing or coughing associated with increased breathing needs to be evaluated.
  • Trouble Breathing- Rapid, shallow breathing, nostrils flaring, or where you can see between your child’s ribs or the gap above their collarbone when they breathe, means they’re working harder to breathe than normal and should be seen by medical professionals immediately.
  • Feeling Extremely Tired- While this is usually a side effect of a long day spent playing in the water, it could also be a sign that your child isn’t getting enough oxygen in their blood. Don’t put them to bed until their doctor gives you the go ahead.
  • Forgetfulness/ Change in Behavior- A dip in oxygen could also cause your child to feel sick or woozy.

What to Do:  Any time you’re concerned about your child and think he or she could have symptoms of dry or secondary drowning, whether you’re in your backyard pool or on a beach vacation, call the pediatrician right away for advice. Your child’s doctor should be able to talk you through what to do and advise you on whether a trip to the ER, doctor’s office, or urgent care center is necessary.

Prevention: Prevention is the same for dry drowning and secondary drowning as it is for any other kind of drowning.

  • Swim lessons- Kids who are comfortable and skilled at moving around the water are less likely to go under and take in water.
  • Supervision- Monitor your kids closely in and around the water.

As long as you practice water safety, pay close attention to your children during and after swimming, and get them checked out if you notice any signs of trouble breathing, you shouldn’t have to constantly stress about dry or secondary drowning.

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