Dry Drowning: What is it?

What is Dry Drowning? Summer marks the season of family vacations, festivals and summer camp, but it can also open the door to accidents, such as dry drowning.

Reports of "dry drowning" or "secondary drowning" have made headlines in the past with stories of children drowning hours after coming out of the water. It can be terrifying, but it is also rare and can be prevented.

The Difference Between Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Drowning is when a child's airway is submerged in liquid, leading to an impairment to breathing and significant neurological damage in some nonfatal drowning events. It ranks among the top three causes of death in most countries according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Although images of pools come into mind when parents think of drowning, children can drown in almost any body of water, even from a bucket of water.

Both dry drowning and secondary drowning are nonmedical terms used to refer to acute lung injury resulting from underwater accidents.

Dry drowning occurs when a child inhales water through the nose or mouth, causing the voice box to spasm and shut, preventing air from entering the lungs. It is called “dry drowning” because the victim's lungs do not have water in them.

Secondary drowning or delayed drowning refers to the accumulation of water in the lungs, which causes edema or swelling. It occurs more rapidly after immersion in fresh water. While dry drowning sets in less than an hour after your child inhales water, secondary drowning can happen up to 48 hours after a water accident.

Most medical authorities and organizations now discourage the use of these terms. The preferred term is simply “drowning.”

When to Seek Emergency Care for Dry Drowning

If the following symptoms occur within an hour after your child gets out of the water, inhales liquid, gets splashed with liquid or after drinking, seek immediate medical help:
  • Uncontrollable or continuous coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Fast or hard breathing
  • Abnormal breathing patterns
  • Trouble breathing
  • Foam at the nose or mouth
If your child seems to lack oxygen or may have drowned, immediately begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and ask someone to call for 911.

How to Prevent Dry Drowning

The WHO recommends the following approaches to reduce dry drowning:
  • Drain unnecessary accumulations of water in areas, such as baths and buckets.
  • Build and maintain fencing around swimming pools.
  • Have your child wear a personal flotation device, such as a life jacket. Note that not all flotation devices are lifesaving. Prepare accordingly.
  • Learn basic first aid skills and CPR.
If your child is having difficulty breathing, go to the nearest hospital or call 911. Please do not delay care.

World Health Organization
National Institutes of Health
Medical News Today

Find a Provider

Need a provider for your care?