HCA East Florida - June 19, 2020
by Christine Senke

Dry Drowning: 5 Things Every Parent in Florida Needs to Know

Even if children feel fine after leaving the water, submersion injuries or near-drownings can present serious dangers hours and days later. Learn how to spot signs of dry drowning in kids, how adults can prevent water accidents, and other important water safety information to know.

Florida leads the country in drowning deaths of children ages 1–4. This figure does not take into account victims of dry drowning.

#1: Different Types of Drowning

The dangers of “real” drowning, where water enters the airway and floods the lungs, are widely recognized as death can occur almost instantly. While less common, serious injuries can appear days after an event involving water. Parents have latched onto the term dry drowning to describe the risks of ingesting even a small amount of water.

By definition, dry drowning is not a medically accepted condition because people die from drowning or do not. Near-drowning, delayed drowning, and secondary drowning is similarly used to describe the inadvertent dangers that can occur around water. Regardless of the name, the eventual complications resulting from a lack of oxygen to the brain can be extremely harmful.

#2: What is Dry Drowning or Secondary Drowning?

In dry drowning, a small amount of water enters through the nose or mouth can trigger a spasm in the airway causing it to close up. Secondary drowning happens water gets into the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling, making it difficult or impossible to breathe. Dry drowning usually can happen as soon as exiting the water, but with secondary drowning, there can be a delay of up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress.

#3: Signs and Symptoms of Dry Drowning

Drowning or dry drowning can happen while doing something innocently as taking a bath or playing with a bucket filled with water. It doesn’t take a lot of water to enter the lungs or block the airways – sometimes just an inch. Kids are more susceptible to water-related injuries as they require supervision to ensure safety around water, but accidents can happen to adults.

Lookout for the following symptoms after a water event or near-drowning experience:

  • Coughing, wheezing, or trouble breathing
  • Sleepiness or a drop in energy level
  • Forgetfulness or unusual behavior
  • Irritability
  • Chest pain
  • Gagging or vomiting

#4: All Water Incidents Require Medical Attention

Play it safe. If a child has an accident or emergency related to water, proper evaluation by a medical professional is always recommended to prevent further injury. If it is determined that any amount of water has been taken in through the airway, an ER is the only place that can appropriately provide necessary treatment. In any event where your child is experiencing breathing, call 9–1–1 immediately. Immediate treatment of dry drowning symptoms increases the chances of recovering with little to no lasting side effects.

Treatment for water injuries depends on the severity of the patient's symptoms. The doctor will check the child's vital signs, oxygen level, and breathing. Some patients may only require observation, while others may need an x-ray or oxygen treatment.

In more rare situations where a child can no longer breathe on their own, assistance by a machine may be needed to help regulate breathing. In any scenario, the goal is to increase blood flow in the lungs and get the child breathing normally again.

#5: Preventing Drowning Injuries

To avoid water emergencies, parents and caregivers should:

  • Never let children swim or play in water alone. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and know CPR in case of an emergency.
  • Teach kids to swim as early as possible so that they are comfortable and skilled enough to navigate water.
  • Enforce water safety rules, such as using the “buddy system”, swimming in areas with lifeguards, avoiding shallow waters if diving, and paying attention to warning flags or notices at beaches or pools.
  • Always enter water feet first to be aware of drop-offs and hidden obstacles in natural water sites.
  • Ensure pools are properly guarded with fences and other safety equipment.
  • Avoid distractions such as cellphones, cooking, cleaning, or reading during bath time.

Time is of the essence in life’s unexpected moments.

Palms West Hospital is a full-service emergency care facility specializing in pediatrics, orthopedics, and cardiac care in Loxahatchee, FL. Pediatric emergency experts at Children’s Hospital at Palms West, part of Palms West Hospital, have been specially trained to care for children of all ages, from toddlers to adolescents.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 immediately. For questions about our emergency care services, please call our Consult-A-Nurse® team at (561) 345-7009.