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Dry Drowning is a Misconception that Can Lead to a Lack of Understanding About Water Safety

If you search the phrase ‘dry drowning,’ you will likely find a number of resources and articles from reputable sources with misleading titles that all seem to imply that dry drowning is a real medical term. It is not. Most of the time, these sources clear up the misconception within the first few sentences, but there are still some outlets that contribute to the confusion surrounding this term. To clarify: drowning means respiratory difficulties caused by submersion in a liquid.  

‘Dry drowning’ is a phrase that is often falsely used to describe respiratory concerns that may or may not be related to a drowning event. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “terms such as wet, dry, secondary, active, near, passive, and silent drowning should not be used” to describe the side effects or injury associated with submersion events. This misconception can lead to a lack of clarity about water safety and treatment of drowning-related incidents. Let’s clear some things up. 

The Basics of Drowning
Drowning is a spectrum of injury that can be fatal or non-fatal. The complications associated with drowning can go away on their own or may require medical intervention, depending on the severity of the event. After a submersion event, any person who has symptoms of difficulty breathing or persistent cough should be evaluated by a medical professional. If the symptoms don’t escalate after several hours, the patient may be safely discharged without need for further evaluation. 

Drowning-Related Complications 
What is usually referred to as ‘dry drowning’ happens when a swimmer accidentally inhales water, but it doesn’t actually reach and penetrate the lungs. Instead, breathing in water causes the vocal cords to spasm and close up. This shuts off the airways, making it hard to breathe. You would start to notice those signs right away — it wouldn’t happen out of the blue days later. If symptoms develop more than eight hours after coming out of the water, odds are that something else is going on and different diagnoses should be considered unrelated to the spectrum of drowning.  

If during such an incident, water does get into the lungs, it could irritate the lung lining and cause fluid build-up, resulting in pulmonary edema (a condition that makes it hard to breathe due to fluid in the lungs). Symptoms of this condition can be mild to extreme breathing difficulty, cough, chest pain, and fatigue; they occur within the first 24 hours of inhaling the water and warrant immediate medical attention. 

The Bottom Line
Why does all of this matter? Isn’t it all about terminology in the end? Well, yes and no. The danger of mislabeling symptoms of any sort can lead to mistaken diagnoses and ineffective treatment. Assumptions about your child’s condition can also cause a misguided response, potentially leading to further injury that could be prevented with a more knowledgeable approach. So, here is the clear and simple process for dealing with a submersion event, big or small: 

  1. If a child (or anyone) experiences a submersion event, watch their breathing and observe their symptoms. Hopefully, they have minimal symptoms that are similar to what happens when a liquid goes down the wrong pipe as we drink: some mild coughing and throat clearing.  
  2. If the symptoms persist, it’s a good idea to see a medical professional at an urgent care or emergency department, just to be safe. They may monitor the patient for 4-6 hours and release them if things don’t escalate. They will be watching for more serious symptoms, such as persistent coughing, foaming at the mouth or nose, confusion, or abnormal behavior.  
  3. If, although initially seeming to be okay, the child starts having issues with breathing or general wellbeing more than 8 hours after the incident, it’s definitely time for medical intervention because these could be signs of something beyond drowning, such as spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung), chemical pneumonitis (lung inflammation), bacterial or viral pneumonia, head injury, asthma, and chest trauma. 

Drowning, no matter how harmless or severe, can be scary, and I sincerely hope you do not have to deal with any of it this summer. Of course, it’s all in your hands as long as you and your family follow basic water safety guidelines: