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Dry Drowning: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Kids

Dry drowning in children is a rare, but deadly complication from taking in water when swimming. In recent news, a 4-year old boy from Houston died a week after swimming at the Texas City Dike. As a result of that well-publicized and tragic death, a Colorado father was able to recognize the same symptoms in his 2-year old son and get him medical treatment to save his life. While a rare complication, dry drowning should be something that parents are aware of and know how to spot the symptoms before it’s too late.

What is dry drowning?

Dry drowning can also be called secondary drowning, although some distinctions can made between the two, and they both fall under the category of “submersion injuries.” In dry drowning, the person gets some water in his throat. This causes spasms that collapse the airway. It can happen in a short amount of time after swimming, and death can occur rapidly.

Secondary drowning is when a small amount of water reaches the lungs and interferes with the body’s oxygen/carbon dioxide transfer process. This condition, called pulmonary edema, can take days to impair the respiratory system enough to cause death.

“These spectrum drowning conditions make up a very small percentage of drownings, but it is definitely important for parents to be aware of the symptoms, just in case,” said Advance ER physician Dr. Alex Lee. “Especially considering how many pools we have in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and how popular swimming is among children.”

What are the symptoms of dry drowning?

Dry drowning shows a lot of symptoms before it gets to the point of no return, so alert parents may be able to see it coming.

Here are some of the symptoms you might notice after swimming or playing in water:

  • Coughing
  • Labored breathing
  • Gasping
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Lack of energy
  • Fatigue or confusion
  • Vomiting

“If your child was happy and playing one minute, then sleepy and sluggish the next minute, oxygen levels may be reduced inside the body. Take him or her to see the nearest emergency physician,” said Dr. Lee.

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for dry drowning include:

  • A child that had to be pulled out of the water in a rescue
  • A child that inhaled water from being dunked or splashed
  • A child that hasn’t had swimming lessons
  • A child not wearing any floatation devices
  • Unattended pool time or water play for children

What should I do if I suspect dry drowning?

“If your child is showing these symptoms and is struggling to breath, get her to the nearest ER,” said Dr. Lee. “We’ll evaluate the breathing, maybe take a chest X-ray, and give oxygen. From there, we’ll develop the right treatment plan to help her start to recover from the unwanted inflow of water.”

Board-certified physicians with years of experience with treating children are standing by to help with your child’s health needs.

Advance ER – the right care in the right place at the right time.

Meet Dr. Alex Lee:

Alex Lee, M.D., is board-certified in Emergency Medicine. He received his medical degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and he completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at LSU/Charity Medical Center. He has been practicing in Dallas for almost a decade and he welcomes patients of all ages. Dr. Lee is fluent in both English and Korean.