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The Truth About 'Dry Drowning' – And What Parents Need To Know

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
child getting out of pool

Have you heard of the term “dry drowning?” It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the name is typically used to describe respiratory or breathing problems that develop several hours after play in a pool or other body of water.

However, “dry drowning” is not a term that we use in the medical field and does not have an exact definition in the medical literature.

If someone has difficulty breathing as a result of being under water, then they have started the process of drowning. Drowning is a spectrum that can range from mild to moderate to severe or fatal. Instead, it’s more useful to think in terms of fatal or non-fatal drowning – and imperative for parents to recognize the signs of respiratory injury after their child has been under water.

Fatal Drowning

Most of us think we understand what a fatal drowning is – a rapid death from suffocation after being immersed in water for a period of time. However, many people may not know that a fatal drowning can occur up to 24 hours after a person is submerged.

A person who experiences submersion can develop minor symptoms at first, like a cough, and then over the course of the next few hours, their symptoms worsen. This is what people often refer to as delayed drowning, but it is really simply drowning. It may be fatal or non-fatal, depending on what type of lung injury has occurred.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that on average, 10 people per day have fatal drowning episodes.

Non-Fatal Drowning

Non-fatal drowning can be divided into those that result in injury or complications, or those that are less severe and do not result in injury or complications.

Drowning injuries can cause brain damage and other serious outcomes, including long-term disability. In addition, for every child who dies from drowning, another eight receive emergency care for non-fatal drowning, the CDC says.

What Parents Should Watch For

If your child is submerged and experiences any respiratory impairment as a result of that immersion, it’s vital to get your child checked by medical personnel.

Warning signs of lung damage after a day at the pool:

  • Persistent cough
  • Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Significant confusion or mental status changes

These symptoms should be especially worrisome if a child has been submerged while playing in water.

Symptoms, such as fatigue, vomiting and mild cough that goes away, can occur during a normal day in the sun at the beach or pool or after swallowing water into the stomach. These symptoms should only be worrisome if there was a known submersion event or if they are accompanied by the other symptoms listed above.

How To Prevent a Drowning Incident

Here is what parents can do to make water activities safer.

  • Avoid swimming in pools or bodies of water without lifeguards
  • At the same time, don’t depend on lifeguards to supervise kids
  • Never leave a child unsupervised in the water. This includes bath tubs and baby pools. Get in the pool with young children or children who are not strong swimmers and keep them no farther than arm’s length away from you. 
  • Pay attention to rip tide and weather warnings on lakes and oceans and stay out of the water when conditions aren’t good for swimming
  • Wear a life vest while boating
  • Ensure that home spas and pools have appropriate fencing
  • Enroll kids in swimming lessons
  • Learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), which can be lifesaving when a drowning event does occur

Leslie Dingeldein, MD, is a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital provides expert pediatric care for infants, children and adolescents. With expertise in 16 medical and 12 surgical specialties, our team of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff has experience in diagnosing and treating children for a range of medical issues, from common childhood illnesses to complex conditions. Learn more about the nationally recognized pediatric medical care at UH Rainbow Babies.