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Symptoms and causes of dry drowning



According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the most common cause of death among children, with an average of 22 drownings and 11 drowning deaths per day in 2021 alone.

While this information is really alarming and may cause parents to question the safety of water-based activities, there are ways to ensure that you and your children remain safe from drowning.

In this article, we examine what the three main types of drowning look like, and dive deep into the phenomenon of “dry drowning” – a non-medical term for when someone shows symptoms of drowning but without any real water present in their lungs. Read on to discover the main symptoms of dry drowning and the steps you can take to protect yourself and your family this season.

The 3 types of drowning

Wet drowning

When someone experiences wet drowning, a laryngospasm– or spasms in the vocal cords – occur when water enters the airways. In most drowning cases, the spasm relaxes and water enters the lungs. In a much lower number of drowning cases, the spasm does not relax and no water enters. This is known as dry drowning.

Dry drowning

Dry drowning occurs when the vocal cords become sufficiently irritated by ingesting water through the nose or mouth so that they cramp and close. Although water never reaches the lungs, this spasm shuts off your airways, making it difficult if not impossible to breathe.

However, it is important to remember that dry drowning is not a real medical condition. According to Dr. Amy Green, DO, av UnityPoint Health in Iowa, “It is a term that has been used and sensationalized by the media to describe when the lungs of drowning victims do not contain any water. The reason for this is that the body forcefully closes the airways. This can happen when water tries to enter the lungs.”

Secondary drowning

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are non-medical terms used to refer to delayed symptoms experienced after immersion in water. “These terms (medically known as immersion injuries) are often used interchangeably – even by some experts – but they are actually different conditions,” says Mark R. Zonfrillo, MD at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

According to experts, during secondary drowning, some water enters the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling that makes it difficult or impossible for the body to transfer oxygen to carbon dioxide and vice versa. Where dry drowning usually occurs shortly after leaving the water, with secondary drowning, it may take up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress.

Symptoms of dry drowning

Immersion injuries are rare, but if you are going to spend time in the pool, lake, river or sea, it is smart to be aware of warning signs and symptoms. Some of the most common include:

  • Hard to breathe
  • Repeated cough
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sudden fatigue or falling energy levels

How to prevent dry drowning

The steps required to prevent dry drowning reflect those needed to prevent any form of drowning. Parents should usually:

  • Give your child swimming lessons.
  • Maintain water safety through supervision at all times.
  • Encourage the use of buoyancy aids.
  • Only allow swimming in areas that have lifeguards on duty.
  • Never let your child swim alone.
  • Never leave a baby alone near any amount of water.

If you encounter a situation where you think your child has experienced some form of drowning, the safest choice is to seek medical attention immediately, as some forms of drowning do not begin to show symptoms until as late as 24 hours after the incident.

Protect yourself from responsibility

Although the risk of drowning is high in all watercourses, homeowners who have pools on their property must follow the necessary precautions to both protect their families from danger and to protect themselves financially from any water-related accidents that may occur on their property in general.

This can include installing signs that remind people to walk and not run in slippery pool areas, clearly mark the depth of the pool, have easy access to life jackets or other buoyancy devices, always have an adult supervising children in the water and more.

These precautions help keep invited guests safe, but homeowners must not forget the additional measures required to protect those who are not invited to swim, such as a child who may accidentally walk in the water, or people who choose to use your pool without permission.

“Pools are considered an ‘attractive nuisance’ in insurance, because someone you do not know may see that you have a pool on your property and will be drawn to it,” said Stephanie Olsen, Senior Personal Lines Underwriter at Central insurance.

From an insurance perspective, even if you do not invite these people to your property, you are considered responsible for what happens to them while they are there.

“If someone were to visit your pool, even without your permission, and something happened to them like an injury or a drowning … you are still considered responsible for that injury or death.”

Stephanie Olsen, Central Insurance

This is why local and city ordinances often insist on pool owners install a fence around the pool, and includes one lock on that fence for extra protection.

“A fence is your first line defense to keep something like this out or from happening,” Olsen continues. She also warns that “even if you are a responsible homeowner and have a lock on a gate that restricts access to the pool, if you do not keep the lock in good condition and someone is injured as a result, it is your responsibility as the owner.”

For this reason, insurance companies often suggest homeowners with pools to invest in extra protection such as umbrella coverage.

A personal umbrella policy is designed to provide an extra amount of liability insurance coverage and a wider range of coverage, including pool-related accidents. In the event of such an accident, this umbrella policy may cover any additional payments not already handled under the homeowner’s policy.

Read more: Umbrella coverage: what it is and why you need it

Explore all the benefits of umbrella coverage at Central’s websitethen contact an agent today to learn how to register.

The post was originally published in July 2020 and has since been updated for clarity.


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