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What in the world is…dry drowning?


It sounds like a cruel, ironic joke: Dry and secondary drowning. How can someone “drown” days after swimming in a pool? While it is rare, dry and secondary drowning are post-immersion respiratory syndromes that happen after the swimmer leaves the pool. Dry drowning happens when the swimmer inhales water and causes the vocal cords to spasm and close, shutting off the airway and making breathing difficult. Secondary drowning involves swallowing water that gets trapped in the lungs, causing swelling and fluid that becomes infected.

What are the symptoms? Dry drowning can resemble choking and difficulty breathing, and is easier to detect (it usually occurs rapidly after exiting the water). Secondary drowning, however, can be mistaken for other illnesses and can occur hours after swimming. Fatigue, coughing, irritability, chest pain and vomiting are all warning signs that can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

While These are not a common cause of drowning deaths in the U.S., it still pays to be aware of these conditions and know how to respond to them. The recent news story of a child in Texas that is believed to have died because of post-immersion drowning has put the condition on every parent’s radar—even saving lives after reading about this tragedy.

The Center for Disease Control does not distinguish dry or secondary drowning from other forms of unintentional drowning, and the terminology is often misused and inaccurate. However, there are many ways to prevent all types of water injuries and fatalities from occurring. According to the CDC, there were over 3,000 fatal drownings from 2005-2014, and 1 in 5 of those were children aged 14 and under.

Water safety is crucial and can save lives—it sounds simple, but teaching your kids how to swim early in life is a huge step towards preventing injury. Properly guarding pools with gates and barriers is important for families with small children (and pets, too!). Keeping an eye on your kids while they’re swimming is crucial, and discouraging “rough water play” such as head dunking in and around water. Learn CPR—it could save a life.

While it’s not necessary to panic every time your child gets a mouthful of water, keeping an eye on them is a no-brainer. Watching out for sudden and unusual changes of behavior in your child after a long day at the pool is key—and if you notice any symptoms of distress or dry or secondary drowning, seek immediate medical attention.

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