Recent publicity surrounding “dry drowning” has sparked a number of phone calls from worried parents in my office. While it can and does happen, I want to send a message of general reassurance. The average kiddo who gulps or even inhales a mouthful of water while in the bathtub or while swimming and has a coughing fit afterward will probably not experience dry drowning.
Dry drowning is one of those topics where when you hear about it, you’ll freak out and worry, but once you really know enough about it, you’ll be reassured.
SO WHAT IS DRY DROWNING?
Dry drowning happens when a fluid (e.g., water) going down the airway causes the vocal cord to spasm and close off. This closes off the airway so the child can’t breathe. It’s called “dry drowning” because the fluid doesn’t get in the lungs. Technically speaking, in the world of medicine, “dry drowning” as a diagnosis doesn’t exist. All doctors know what is meant by the term, but use the general term “drowning” instead. Drowning is defined as “a process resulting in primary respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in a liquid medium.” (Idris et al. 2003). Drowning replaces all the confusing terms like “near-drowning,” “secondary drowning,” “passive drowning,” “silent drowning,” “wet drowning,” and “dry drowning.”
IS DRY DROWNING COMMON?
No. Dry drowning is really rare. If you consider “dry drowning” a type of “drowning” it only makes up 1-2% of all cases. “Drowning,” however (in the traditional sense that people think of) is unfortunately really common. In the US, it is the second leading cause of accidental death in the US (and leading cause in children 12-23 mo. old). In my career, I have had the very sad responsibility of caring for many patients who have drowned. None of them were the result of “dry drowning.”
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF DRY DROWNING?
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Extreme and sudden tiredness or drop in energy (the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen)
WHAT TO DO?
What to do depends on your child’s situation.
If your child went under the water momentarily or fluid seemed to go down the wrong tube…
- Never stopped breathing, and looks ok now, then carefully watching at home is reasonable.
- Continues to cough, turned blue, has trouble breathing, or looks worrisome, then seek medical care.
- Looked ok for a while and later starts having trouble with more cough or trouble breathing,then seek medical care.
When in doubt, seek medical care. It’s always better safe than sorry.
WILL MY KID’S LUNGS BE DAMAGED IF FLUID GETS IN THERE?
The body is amazing in its ability to recover from things. A small amount of inhaled water can be absorbed by the body with time. Usually it doesn’t cause any long-term problems. Sometimes really dirty fluid or lots of it can create a problem (like pneumonia). Clearly, copious amounts can cause drowning. But the average gulp or mouthful isn’t a huge deal.
Prevention rather than treatment is always the best scenario. When it comes to water safety, keep these tips in mind:
- Always keep an eye on your child when he/she is in or around water (resist the urge to look at your phone or run quick to grab something in the other room). This holds true for all water (bathtubs, pools, little inflatable yard pools, houseboats, etc.).
- Never let your child swim alone (no matter the age). I took care of a teenager once who drowned in water where he could touch (with no signs of substances or foul play)
- Make everyone get out of the pool if you have to take a younger one to the potty (and there isn’t another responsible adult to watch while you leave).
- Take safety measures (life vests on boats, fences and pool covers with home pools, etc.)