For parents enjoying time at the pool with their kids, it’s a frightening prospect — the possibility that a child can drown after getting out of the water.
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Atypical drowning, or what has been mistakenly called “dry drowning,” can occur after a child has struggled in the water and is rescued, which can cause brain injury, respiratory problems or even death.
“This is why every child who has fallen into the water or experienced a near-drowning should be taken to the emergency room immediately,” says pediatrician Purva Grover, MD, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Children’s Pediatric Emergency Departments. “If we can intervene quickly, it’s possible for a child to recover.”
When the larynx closes up
“In a normal drowning, a swimmer will aspirate a lot of water into their lungs as they struggle in the water,” says Dr. Grover. “In an atypical drowning, the larynx goes shut as a protective response. No water gets in, but no air gets in either.”
It’s called a laryngospasm — a constriction of muscles in the airway. The longer it takes for the larynx to relax, the longer the body is deprived of oxygen.
“Being deprived of oxygen for even a few minutes is fatal,” says Dr. Grover. “Kids with heart defects and respiratory difficulties like asthma are at particular risk.”
If fluid collects in the lungs
In another scenario, water can be aspirated into the lungs and collect there as a person struggles in the water. That collection of fluid in the lungs is called pulmonary edema, which causes difficult or rapid breathing that can make a “crackle” sound.
“Within an hour, you will start seeing those respiratory difficulties,” Dr. Grover says. “If it’s severe enough, a child can end up on a ventilator.”
Watch closely, rescue quickly
The younger the child, the more closely he or she needs to be watched in the water, says Dr. Grover. In the case of babies and toddlers, for instance, just a few inches of bath water can be enough to cause them to drown.
“Watch them closely and rescue them quickly,” he says. “Even if they are submerged for a minute or two, they should go to the hospital immediately.”