What is Dry and Secondary Drowning?

It scares me just to type those words: dry and secondary drowning. As you may know, this happened to my son Ian. We got him help in time, but I know others who were not as lucky. As hard as it is to write,this post is important. Please, read it and learn the signs so that it never happens to you or someone you love–it can happen to adults, too.

Dry drowning can occur after someone takes in even a small amount of water through their nose or mouth. That is enough to make us choke or cause a spasm in the airway, which causes it to close up. It may become difficult or impossible to breathe. Dry drowning often presents soon after the person ingests water.

Secondary drowning, on the other hand, is when the water gets into the person’s lungs. It isn’t enough for them to drown, but it is enough to cause inflammation and/or swelling that prevents the lungs from working properly. It is no longer able to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. This process can be slow—there may even be an entire 24 hours’ delay between the incident and severe enough symptoms to cause distress.

Now that you know what they are, here’s the symptoms to look out for:

  • Labored breathing. If their breathing is rapid and/or shallow, it can be a signal that they are not getting enough oxygen. The same goes with flared nostrils. If you can see the gap above their collarbone or the spaces between their ribs, you are seeing labored breathing. Seek medical attention.
  • Chest pain. This symptom could be caused by inflammation in the lungs or as a side effect from coughing or gagging.
  • Coughing. A persistent cough, especially after being around or accidentally swallowing/inhaling water is a warning sign that something might be wrong.
  • Changes in mental alertness.Fatigueas a symptom is hard to isolate, especially if you have been in the sun and water all day. But if the person seems excessively tired, it could be a sign of secondary drowning—their blood may not be getting enough oxygen. Another sign is confusion or forgetfulness. Do not let the person go to sleep unless they have been checked out by a doctor.
  • Dizzinesscan also be a red flag that the body is not getting enough oxygen.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting. Vomiting can be from the inflammation in the lungs, or it can be brought on by coughing or gagging.

Finally, if you have to rescue someone—whether it is an adult or a child—from the water, or if you suspect someone has swallowed or inhaled water (even a small amount) while under duress,they should receive medical attention. Take them to a hospital or urgent care facility so that they can be evaluated and treated. At the minimum, call a doctor and find out if they should be brought in.

In many cases, the symptoms are mild and will gradually improve on their own. But you won’t know that until after a they’ve had a chest x-ray. Other treatments include observation to ensure that airways remain clear and oxygen level monitoring. They may also be required to have a breathing tube to make it easier for their lungs and airway.

Understand that your child is much more likely to drown than suffer from dry or secondary drowning (which are rare). However, since it is less common and much less obvious, it is definitely worth educating yourself about so that you can be vigilant.