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Defining dry drowning

Last Modified: July 01, 2020

Family Medicine, Safety & Prevention

Dry Drowning

It seems every summer a tragic story of dry drowning makes its way into the headlines. But what is it and what do caregivers need to be watching for? We asked Thomas Gutwein, MD, Emergency Medicine, to tell us what parents need to know to avoid this warm-weather hazard.

What is dry drowning?

The term “dry drowning” is used to describe the phenomenon that happens when kids get fluid in their airways, causing their airways to become inflamed and spasm hours or days after they originally swallowed water. Although it’s incredibly uncommon, it can happen at any time, from any water source — whether it’s a pool, a pond or even a bathtub. Ultimately, it’s a serious condition that can lead to death.

Does dry drowning only happen to children?

Dry drowning is more likely to occur in young children because of the size of their airways. An irritation that causes a small amount of swelling in a young child can obstruct about 50 percent of their airway, while the same amount of swelling in an older child or an adult may only obstruct about 10 percent of the airway. By the time a child is around 8 to 10 years old, their airways can usually handle much more irritation and swelling. Children with known sensitivities or conditions like asthma may have a heightened risk of irritation.

What are some of the symptoms of dry drowning?
  • A persistent cough, especially at night, that isn’t improving. This can often be the only symptom, and it can sometimes appear even 24 hours after leaving the water.
  • Difficulty breathing, or feeling like you can’t catch your breath.
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Chest retractions (When the skin in between or around the ribs is sucked in when inhaling. This usually signals an increased use of chest muscles and difficulty breathing.)
When should a parent seek help?

If your child is still coughing hours, or even days, after leaving the water, and the cough seems to be worsening or not improving, seek medical attention. 


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