Though extremely rare, a 4-year-old boy died of drowning days after he went swimming in the USA last month. The suspected cause of death was reported to be “dry drowning” at the time. “Dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” aren’t actual medical terms, but they are used to describe the complications which result from submersion of water. Although the media has used these two terms interchangeably, they actually describe two different phenomena.
What is dry drowning?
Dry drowning is a term used to describe victims who die from being submerged in water but have no water in their lungs. The water never reaches the lungs. There are two theories as to what causes dry drowning. The first theory is laryngospasm, where the sudden rush of water into the throat causes the larynx to snap shut and the airways to close. This leads to asphyxiation. The second theory is that suddenly entering extremely cold water may cause the heart to stop.
What’s the difference between dry drowning and delayed drowning?
In dry drowning, the lungs are absent of water, but in secondary drowning (also known as delayed drowning), water is aspirated (inhaled) and gets into the lungs, which causes irritation of the lungs’ lining and fluid build-up in the lungs. Victims of secondary drowning breathe in water and may seem like they have successfully expelled it through coughing but in reality, water is still in the lungs, filling up the oxygen-rich pores and reducing the ability to oxygenate the blood that passes through the lungs. As the blood oxygen level decreases over time, victims may feel tired, disoriented or exhibit behavioural changes. They may also experience fits of coughing, trouble breathing, vomiting and chest pain. Symptoms worsen over time and they may die if no medical attention is given. It is crucial to monitor children (and adults) after near-drowning experiences and to seek immediate medical attention (ER) if symptoms persist or worsen.
What are the symptoms/ what should parents look out for?
In dry drowning cases, since your larynx is shut, no water or air can get into your lungs, so asphyxiation happens pretty much right away. In secondary or delayed drowning, the following symptoms may present and usually persist or worsen over time: difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, vomiting, tiredness/ sleepiness, disorientation/ confusion, behavioural changes, foaming in the mouth
What should I do if my child does exhibit symptoms?
If your child experienced a near-drowning experience or was submerged in water, then later exhibits the symptoms above, seek medical attention at the ER right away. Health experts treat these cases as a medical emergency.
How can I prevent drowning and practice water safety? Tips for water safety:
- Undistracted supervision is key! Always watch children in the pool, bathtub or body of water.
- Close your nose and mouth when diving or jumping into water (to prevent the sudden gush of water that can cause the larynx to spasm and shut).
- Children and adults of all ages should wear a lifejacket or personal flotation device when on boats/ kayaking/ paddle-boating, etc. Don’t overestimate your child’s ability to swim to safety.
- Avoid alcohol before and during swimming and water activities. Don’t drink alcohol while supervising children.
- Teach your children to swim or enrol them in swimming lessons to lower the risk of drowning.