What Every Parent Needs to Know About Dry Drowning

Your drowning risk doesn’t end when you leave the pool.

Tropical-studio/ShutterstockDry drowning may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a very real phenomenon that can have tragic consequences. Despite making recent headlines, it’s actually extremely rare—still, it can happen to anyone and knowing the signs can be the difference between life and death. Thomas Waters, MD, of the Center for Emergency Medicine at Cleveland Clinic explains exactly what dry drowning means and what red flags to look out for.

What exactly is it?

Dry drowning occurs when somebody becomes ill or succumbs to their symptoms several hours after being submerged underwater and inhaling it through their mouth or nose, instead of in the moment like a typical drowning episode. “When a person undergoes a submergent incident, there is a spasm of the vocal chords that causes them to shut, and they struggle to breathe against those closed chords. This creates negative pressure, which causes inflammation, and leads to fluid buildup in the lungs,” says Dr. Waters.

How does that lead to distress or death?

As the water accumulates in the lungs, it causes breathing issues that become worse and worse. Without medical treatment to open up your airways and eliminate the fluid, you can die. “Any foreign substance that gets into the lungs—whether it’s stomach acid or vomit, a peanut, or pool water—can cause irritation and impact breathing,” says Dr. Waters.

What are the signs of dry drowning?

“The most important thing is for parents to trust their gut. You know your child best, and if they’re not acting right, something may have happened,” says Dr. Waters. Look out for a persistent cough that they didn’t have before, gasping for breath or other signs they’re having trouble breathing (like flaring nostrils), sudden lethargy or exhaustion that seems out of the ordinary, mental confusion, or blue lips and fingers. Though young children are particularly at risk, anyone can experience a dry drowning incident.

What should I do if I notice something wrong?

Get them to the ER, stat! “Typically, we’ll just observe them to make sure they don’t get worse, but if someone does progress to respiratory distress, it’s easier to deal with it in the emergency room,” says Dr. Water. “Don’t wait it out; it’s better to just let us do the observation for you.”

Are there any special precautions I can take?

Not really. “Most of all, don’t panic. This is very rare. Just be aware and watch for the symptoms,” he says.

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Alyssa Jung
Alyssa Jung is a writer and editor with extensive experience creating health and wellness content that resonates with readers. She freelanced for local publications in Upstate New York and spent three years as a newspaper reporter before moving to New York City to pursue a career in magazines. She is currently Senior Associate Editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Prevention.com. Previously she worked at Reader's Digest as an editor, writer, and health fact checker.