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Safe Swimmers: What is Dry Drowning?

August 23, 2018
Published in: Children, First Aid, Summer

Kids with floats in the pool.

Swimming has long been a favorite summer activity. Nothing cures the heat of a sweltering summer day more than a nice dip at your favorite swimming spot. Most of us are aware of the basic safety guidelines for being a safe swimmer and enjoy the relaxation of swimming without incident. However, there's a less well-known danger that threatens swimmers called dry drowning. Let’s look at what causes dry drowning, how to recognize the symptoms, and what steps to take to prevent it.

What is Dry Drowning?

Dry drowning is a term that describes water entering the airway causing the vocal chords to spasm and close up. Dry drowning differs from primary drowning because water doesn't actually enter the lungs. Dry drowning typically occurs soon after exiting the water. Another type of drowning is secondary drowning, which occurs when a small amount of water enters the lungs and causes swelling which can prevent normal breathing. Secondary drowning symptoms can take as long as 24 hours to become apparent. Although dry drowning and secondary drowning are rare, both conditions are life-threatening if left untreated.

Recognizing Dry Drowning

Boy dripping wet in the bathtubIt's important to note that children are more likely to experience symptoms of dry drowning. While we think of drowning occurring in large bodies of water like pools, lakes, or the ocean, bath time is another activity that poses a dry drowning risk. It's imperative to get immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Coughing: Coughing can indicate that the body is working extra hard to breathe.
  • Breathing changes: Shallow breathing, flared nostrils, and noticeable gaps between the ribs when trying to breathe are all signs of distress.
  • Fatigue: Sudden sleepiness or sleepiness accompanied by other symptoms can mean that not enough oxygen is reaching the bloodstream.
  • Changes in behavior: A lack of oxygen can make a person forgetful, dizzy, or out of sorts.
  • Vomiting: Inflammation or stress in the body can trigger vomiting in dry drowning victims.

If someone experiences a near drowning or other submersion accident, make sure to seek medical attention even if no adverse symptoms are apparent. Remember, the timeframe for the onset of symptoms can vary.

Prevention is Key

Happy little boy in a swimming poolAs the classic saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The same is true when preventing primary, secondary, or dry drowning. Implement the following measures to keep you and your loved ones safe when swimming:

  • Learn to swim: Proper swim lessons provide a good foundation for safe swimming. Make swim lessons mandatory for children.
  • Swimming supervision: Never swim alone, and make sure to enforce safety rules like no dunking or roughhousing in the water. Swimming where lifeguards are present adds an extra layer of security.
  • Accident Proof: Make sure new swimmers have floatation devices. Assess your home pool for safety and use precautions like pool covers and fences to prevent accidents.
  • Swim Smart: Never swim when under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Swimming is a fun and enjoyable activity. Make sure you and your loved ones remain safe swimmers by educating yourself about the risks and taking proper precautions. Conditions like dry drowning, while rare, can be life-threatening if left untreated. Seek immediate medical attention if symptoms occur.