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What Is Dry Drowning?

The 1 Pool Danger Most Parents Don't Know to Watch Out For

Many parents' worst fear over the Summer months is their child having a problem in the water. Whether they go out too far in the ocean and get caught in a riptide or fall to the mercy of a lifeguard or quick bystander at the pool, accidental drowning is a universal nightmare.

Despite how traumatic watching a child struggle in the water may be, it isn't always the worst-case scenario because there are usually major signs that your child is in distress. Unlike traditional drowning, dry drowning can actually occur on land — away from the water — without parents even realizing their child is in dire need of help.

What Is Dry Drowning?

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are two life-threatening terms that are oftentimes used interchangeably. But they are actually two different conditions that can kill children.


Dry drowning occurs when a person accidentally inhales a small amount of water through his or her nose or mouth, causing their airway to spasm. During this reaction, a little one's airway closes up — typically soon after the child exits the water. A child doesn't have to be visibly struggling in the water for this to happen. All it takes is some unexpected water in his or her mouth or a playful dunk.

Unlike the relatively quick timeline of dry drowning, secondary drowning can occur up to 24 hours after a child leaves the water and involves water in the lungs. When a small amount of water gets into a swimmer's lungs, it can cause inflammation that makes breathing difficult. This swelling and lack of air creates a problem turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.

What Are the Symptoms?

  • Water Distress: Any child, no matter their age, who struggled in the water and needed assistance should be observed and receive medical attention.
  • Sleepiness: While it's common for kids to wear themselves out after a day playing at the pool, a decrease in oxygen can also cause extreme sleepiness.
  • Coughing: If your child is consistently coughing after potentially inhaling water, they could be in danger.
  • Labored Breathing: Noticing nostril flaring or shallow breathing in your little one means that your kid is working harder to breathe.
  • Vomiting: Throwing up signals that a child's body is in stress. Lack of oxygen, inflammation, or intense coughing can all cause vomiting.
  • Change in behavior: Lacking oxygen can cause your child to seem woozy, disoriented, or forgetful.

What to Do

If your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, call their pediatrician immediately. Depending on the severity of the situation, you might be advised to call 911 or go directly to the hospital.

How Can I Prevent It?

Any type of drowning is a serious accident that can potentially be prevented. Enroll your child in swim lessons to teach them swim safety and to help them to become comfortable in the water. It's also important to ensure that there is close and constant supervision whenever your child is near or in water. Younger kids should also wear appropriate flotation devices. It's essential to remember that this can occur even if the water isn't deep, so even standing water can be problematic.

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