‘Dry Drowning’: Separating Fact From Fiction

Learn the truth behind this misleading term + tips for keeping kids safe in the water
little girl playing in pool

Who among us hasn’t seen alarming articles or social media posts about “dry drowning”? The idea of kids drowning during a swim in a pool or lake is terrifying enough. Are you also supposed to worry about your kids getting dangerously sick hours after gulping down some pool water?

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Not exactly. “Dry drowning is a not a real medical term,” says pediatric emergency medicine doctor Purva Grover, MD. All drowning events require water, which is why doctors shy away from the term altogether.

Still, there’s a kernel of truth in the concept. Some drowning-related injuries can emerge hours after the incident — but they’re usually not as sensational as those scary headlines suggest. “The science is simple, but the story in the media is not,” Dr. Grover explains.

Here’s what you need to know to keep your kids safe in the water.

What is drowning?

The myth of dry drowning goes something like this: A child goes underwater for a few seconds before being pulled to safety. They shake it off and go back to playing. But hours later, water remaining in their lungs causes them to “drown” on dry land.

“This idea is really scary for parents, but it’s misleading,” says Dr. Grover.

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A child who comes up spluttering after a cannonball is not necessarily at risk of suddenly “drowning” the next day. “However, symptoms can show up after you’ve left the water,” she explains.

Drowning is defined as a respiratory impairment — that is, being unable to breathe — as a result of being submerged in water. When a person is struggling underwater and unable to come up for air, they experience a reflex called a laryngeal spasm. This spasm shuts off the airways and stops oxygen flowing to the brain. Without CPR, it can lead to a loss of consciousness (and worse).

In some cases, a child inhales water before the airways clamp shut, Dr. Grover explains. Too much water can cause lung damage and breathing problems that become serious six to 12 hours later.

Secondary drowning symptoms

How can you tell if your child is at risk for these delayed symptoms? If your kiddo inhaled some water while playing in the bath or got dunked in the pool during water tag, there’s no need to worry, Dr. Grover says.

But if your child was struggling underwater and unable to breathe, they should be assessed by a medical expert. They should get checked out to make sure their lungs are clear and undamaged.

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“Typically, symptoms of drowning show up right away,” Dr. Grover says. If you see any of these warning signs after a water incident or sense that something isn’t right, see a doctor:

  • Change of skin color.
  • Heavy coughing.
  • High fever.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing.
  • Vomiting or foaming at the mouth.

Water safety strategies

Tragically, drowning and near-drowning events are leading causes of death in children. They can happen in just a few minutes, in water as shallow as an inch, Dr. Grover says.

How can you prevent these tragic incidents?

  • Supervision: Always watch kids closely when they’re in or near the water.
  • Dedicated watcher: When gathering in large groups, assign one adult to watch one or two specific children, so that all kids have a dedicated set of eyes on them at all times.
  • Perimeter protection: Install fences and gates around pools.
  • Safety gear: Make sure kids wear life jackets around the water.
  • First aid: Learn basic swimming skills and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

“Dry drowning” may be a misleading term, but parents should take any near-drowning incident seriously, Dr. Grover says.

Children who were submerged underwater should be examined and monitored by a doctor, she adds: “As a mother and an ER physician, I say better safe than sorry.”

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