What you need to know about dry drowning


child swimming in waterWhat’s the key to spotting post-swimming symptoms?

Summer swimming may be dangerous even after your day at the pool. Drowning dangers may exist even after you’re out of the water.

Also called “delayed drowning,” dry drowning means that water enters the lungs but side effects don’t appear until hours later, usually within four to six hours. It’s extremely rare, and it happens when someone breathes in small amounts of water during a struggle in the water, which makes the airway muscles spasm and breathing becomes difficult. It can lead to breathing trouble, brain injury, and even death if it goes untreated.

A key pointer is to be on alert if someone has had a “close call” to drowning in the water. They may appear fine once out of the water for a while, but it’s important to keep an eye out for dry drowning symptoms afterward, says Eric Higginbotham, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. Dell Children’s is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

What to look for

Higginbotham said summer is the busiest time of year for drowning cases in the emergency room.

The most common symptom to look out for after swimming is trouble breathing. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting

Higginbotham said it can be hard to spot these symptoms, especially in younger kids who might already be fussy or tired after a long day in the water. If you think someone is having these symptoms, head for the ER, because time is of the essence.

Kids who come into the emergency room undergo extensive observation to make sure breathing troubles don’t get worse. If treatment is needed, emergency staff help stabilize breathing with oxygen or ventilation. Any water in the lungs is absorbed over time.

A message for parents: Pay attention!

When kids are near water, it’s important to closely supervise them at all times. Adults who are watching kids should avoid all distractions, like talking on the phone, playing games or drinking alcohol, according to the CDC.

Drowning in general is the second leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1-14 years old, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.