Should I Worry About Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning?

People spend more time in pools, rivers, lakes, and on beaches during the hot summer months. While water offers an escape from the heat, it’s important to keep water safety in mind. Recent headlines have increased awareness and concerns about dry drowning and secondary drowning, but should parents worry?

It’s hard not to worry when you see the alarming stories: a child gets out of the pool or lake and seems fine… till they suddenly lose consciousness and drown, minutes or hours after they’ve left the water. But it’s not that simple — or that scary.

How common are dry drowning and secondary drowning, and can they be prevented?

What’s the difference between dry drowning and secondary drowning?

While drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children, and fifth leading cause for all ages, dry drowning and secondary drowning are both extremely rare.

Typically these post-immersion respiratory syndromes only occur after a near drowning incident. Both can happen in adults, but most cases of dry drowning and secondary drowning involve young children. 

Dry drowning occurs when water is inhaled and causes muscle spasms in the airway, which blocks airflow. With secondary drowning water is inhaled into the lungs. The water irritates the lungs which could cause them to fill with fluid – this is known as pulmonary edema – making it difficult to breathe.

Some physicians reject these terms altogether, and simply include them under the umbrella of drowning.

What are the symptoms of dry drowning and secondary drowning?

The symptoms of dry drowning begin almost immediately after a drowning incident, while secondary drowning symptoms may start 1-24 hours after water enters the lungs. Symptoms may include coughing, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and lethargy.

What are ways to prevent dry drowning or secondary drowning?

These syndromes are very rare, and while you don’t need to prevent dry drowning specifically, the best way to prevent it is the same methods you would prevent drowning.

  • Teach your children water safety, and teach them to float and swim.
  • Make sure that young children – and children that cannot swim – wear proper flotation devices. All children under 12 must wear a life jacket on a boat in the state of Arkansas.
  • Always keep an eye on children when they’re in or around water.
  • Parents should learn CPR.
  • Don’t swim alone.
  • Pay attention to the weather and surroundings.
  • Examine swimming areas for hazards.

What to do in the event of secondary or dry drowning.

There are warning signs for these syndromes, and if they’re going to occur they will most likely follow a near-drowning event. Watch your child closely after a near-drowning to see if he or she starts to show symptoms of dry drowning or secondary drowning.

If you believe your child is showing symptoms of dry drowning or secondary drowning call your child’s pediatrician. They can advise you on what to do and whether to seek medical attention.

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