American Osteopathic Association

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Dry and Secondary Drowning: The Signs Every Parent Needs to Know

swimming.jpgYou might be aware that drowning is a common swimming hazard. But do you know that dry and secondary drowning account for 1-2% of drowning deaths a year, mostly in children under age 5? While this statistic might leave you worried, it doesn’t have to dampen your water fun. Mark A. Mitchell, DO, an osteopathic emergency medicine physician from Chicago, discusses the common signs of dry and secondary drowning and provides tips to keep you and your family safe in and out of the water.

Dry and Secondary Drowning: How does it happen? 

According to Dr. Mitchell, dry and secondary drowning can occur after inhaling water through the nose or mouth. In cases of dry drowning, the water causes a spasm in the airway, causing it to close up and impact breathing. Unlike dry drowning, delayed or secondary drowning occurs when swimmers have taken water into their lungs. Secondary drowning differs because the airways are open, allowing water into the lungs. The water builds up over time, eventually causing breathing difficulties. Unfortunately, people do not always recognize the symptoms. Understanding the symptoms of dry and secondary drowning and learning how to react are key steps in avoiding serious complications.

What Are the Warning Signs?

While symptoms of dry drowning typically occur right after a water incident, secondary drowning symptoms typically appear anywhere between an hour to 24 hours after a near-drowning experience. If your child has recently had a near-drowning experience, or inhaled a large amount of water, Dr. Mitchell suggests watching them for the following signs:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing
  • Sleepiness or a drop in energy level, possibly resulting from a lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Irritability
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting

“Be attentive to sudden changes in behavior,” advises Dr. Mitchell. “Many parents do not consider the chance of delayed drowning, because they believe their child is fatigued from a long day of swimming, or exhausted from nearly drowning.” While symptoms are oftentimes mild and improve over time, it is still important to have your child examined as a precautionary measure. “Treat dry or secondary drowning as a medical emergency. If you or someone you know starts exhibiting these signs, go to the hospital,” warns Dr. Mitchell. Your physician can determine if airways are blocked, water is in the lungs, or oxygen levels are low. Once diagnosed, a physician will be able to provide the best treatment to restore your health. 

How Can It Be Prevented?

To help prevent water-related injuries and emergencies, Dr. Mitchell encourages parents and caregivers to: 

  • Teach water safety, including no diving in shallow waters and only swimming in areas with lifeguards.

  • Help your kids learn to swim as early as possible.

  • Ensure pools are properly guarded.

  • Warn teens of the risk of swimming under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

  • Never let children swim alone. Be vigilant when watching them swim or play around large and small bodies of water such as plastic pools, bathtubs and toilet bowls.

  • Discourage rough play, such as head dunking, in and around water.

By understanding the importance of water safety, swimmers can significantly lower their risk of delayed drowning and other water-related accidents.

Staying Safe in the Water Year-round

Swimming is a fun activity, but it can become dangerous without the right precautions. Like many accidents, dry and secondary drowning can be prevented. “The best ways to prevent dry and secondary drowning are through awareness and knowledge,” says Dr. Mitchell. “When it comes to water safety, educate yourself and your loved ones of the dangers that can arise in the water. Never let your guard down, and always be attentive to sudden changes in behavior after your child has been in the water. Knowledge and practice of water safety are the best ways to keep every swimmer healthy and happy all year long!” 


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