Dry Drowning & Secondary Drowning: Symptoms and Warning Signs

You pay close attention to your children when they swim or play in the pool splash in the ocean. You make sure there is a lifeguard nearby, and you never leave your little ones alone near water, even next to a bathtub. And it is right. But there’s one more thing you can do to keep them safe: Be aware of danger signs after they’re out of the water and what to do.

Health experts define drowning as difficulty breathing after water enters the airways. Sometimes it happens while bathing or bathing. But it can happen because of something as simple as getting water in your mouth or being submerged in water.

While this can be fatal, this is not always the case. You can drown if you seek help right away.

You may have heard of the terms “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning.” In fact, these are not medical terms. But they point to rare complications that you should be aware of that are more common in children.

In so-called dry drowning, the water never reaches the lungs. Instead, inhaling water causes your child’s vocal cords to spasm and close. This closes off their airways, making it difficult to breathe. You would immediately begin to notice these signs – it would not happen out of the blue a few days later.

“Secondary drowning” is another term people use to describe another complication of drowning. This happens when water enters the lungs. There, it can irritate the lining of the lungs, and fluid can accumulate, causing a condition called pulmonary edema. You will most likely notice right away that your child is having trouble breathing, and this may worsen over the next 24 hours. Both events are very rare. They make up just 1-2% of all drowning cases, says pediatrician James Orlovsky, MD, of Tampa Florida Hospital.


Complications of drowning may include:

Your child may also have behavioral changes such as irritability or decreased energy levels, which may mean that the brain is not getting enough oxygen.

What to do

If your child has trouble breathing after getting out of the water, seek medical attention. Although in most cases, the symptoms will go away on their own, it is important to get them checked.

“The most likely symptoms are relatively mild and improve over time,” says Mark Reiter, MD, former president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

Any problems that arise are usually treatable if you seek medical attention right away. Your job is to keep a close eye on your child for 24 hours after they have any problems in the water.

If symptoms persist or worsen, take your child to the emergency room rather than the pediatrician’s office. “Your child will need a chest x-ray, IV fluid, and will be admitted to the hospital for observation,” says Raymond Petitti, MD, associate director of the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It can’t be done in an office.”

If your child has to stay in the hospital, he will likely receive “supportive care.” This means doctors will check their airways and monitor their oxygen levels. If your child has severe breathing problems, they may need to use a breathing tube for a while.


The most important thing you can do is help prevent drowning.

  • Always keep a close eye on when your child is in or near water.
  • Allow swimming only in places where there are lifeguards.
  • Never let a child swim alone.
  • Never leave a child alone near any amount of water, even at home.

Enroll yourself and your children in water safety classes. There are even programs that introduce water to children from 6 months to 3 years. If you have a pool at home, make sure it is completely enclosed.

Teenagers are more likely to experience drug and alcohol-related drowning, so educate your kids about the risks, says Mike Gittelman, MD, co-director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Trauma Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Don’t let your guard down, even if the water isn’t deep. You can drown in any kind of water – in a bathtub, a toilet bowl, a pond, or a small plastic pool.

“Safety on the water is by far the most important thing,” Reiter says.

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