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What is Dry Drowning?

Sarah Kaddour · July 19, 2018

Learn All About the Dangers of Dry Drowning

What if we told you that “Dry Drowning” isn’t a medical term or diagnosis used to categorize drowning. Would you believe us?

The term “Dry Drowning” has been spreading like wildfire resulting in lots of confusion and anxiety among parents in regards to what signs and symptoms point toward “Dry Drowning.” First, let’s break down the definition and proper terminology of drowning, then discuss what signs and symptoms are concerning and would warrant medical attention.

For starters, drowning is NOT synonymous with death. The general definition of drowning is: submersion or immersion in a liquid medium resulting in respiratory and/or cardiac impairment. In 2010, The American Heart Association (AHA) endorsed the terminology which suggested that ambiguous or confusing terms such as “near-drowning,” “secondary drowning,” “wet drowning,” “dry drowning” NOT be used. Instead of trying to categorize drowning into types to determine the severity of the incident, it is more beneficial and easier to understand if you focus on the outcomes of a drowning incident to determine the severity.

There are 3 possible outcomes that can occur from drowning:

  1. Non-fatal drowning resulting in no injuries
  2. Non-fatal drowning resulting in injuries
  3. Fatal drowning resulting in death

Now, let’s touch on signs and symptoms. For obvious things such as – your child has stopped breathing, is having severe difficulty breathing, their heart has stopped or they have changes in their mental status or any other serious concerns, 911 should be called right away. All of these are signs of potential or impending death and would require immediate medical attention.

Things get a bit trickier when it comes to milder symptoms and when to seek medical attention. Often times parents will come in and say things like “he was under the water for 1-2 seconds, and was coughing a lot right afterwards but after a few moments he was fine” or “She was in the bathtub and water splashed into her face and she coughed so I wanted to bring her in to be checked for dry drowning” or “He swallowed some water in the pool, can we get a chest x-ray to look for dry drowning?”

Generally speaking, immediate mild coughing can be expected after an incident like the ones described above; however, symptoms and signs that are more alarming but may not be very obvious to parents would be: persistent coughing, breathing faster than normal, mild difficulty breathing, vomiting, or any other alarming symptoms. If that is the case, it is recommended that you seek medical attention at an urgent care center or the emergency room. Even if you feel your child seems okay but you still want to seek medical attention for reassurance, that is always encouraged.

Medical management of children who are asymptomatic or displaying mild symptoms following a submersion incident can range from simple observation for a few hours, to obtaining a chest x-ray to look for any abnormalities in the lungs, to admission to the hospital for closer more long-term observation depending on the details surrounding the incident, the child’s physical exam, and vital signs.

In conclusion, drowning is a very scary topic to discuss, and there are a lot of myths and confusing information out there that lead to more anxiety surrounding the topic. If you are ever concerned or unsure, seek advice from a medical professional. Prevention of drowning episodes focuses on proper water safety, so be sure to take the necessary precautions to help prevent drowning injuries. You can find some helpful recommendations on water safety here.

5 Take Home Points:

  1. Dry drowning is a confusing term that shouldn’t be used.
  2. Drowning severity is based on the outcomes of the incident and there are only three possible outcomes.
  3. Serious signs and symptoms require emergent medical attention. Call 911!
  4. Mild coughing can be expected after a submerging incident. However, persistent coughing, breathing faster than normal, difficulty breathing, perfuse vomiting, or if you are ever unsure about your child’s condition warrants medical attention at an urgent care center or the emergency room.
  5. Prevention is Key! Find recommendations for water safety here.