Dry Drowning is Not a Thing.

Time to do this again. 

As in years past, stories are beginning to re-circulate about “dry drowning.” I know reading stories about kids drowning is scary; I see these in my news feed, too. These stories stick, sometimes making time at the pool more anxiety than play. Despite the prevalence of these articles, it’s important to know that your kids are not “dry drowning.” Here’s why.

dry drowning natasha burgert

Drowning is a submersion event that is either fatal or non-fatal, there are no other categories. Death from drowning occurs because of lack of oxygen to the brain. The term “dry” or “secondary” drowning originated from the amount of water in a person’s lungs during autopsy. However, these antiquated terms have no bearing on the significance of a water event or the clinical course of a child after drowning and should not be used.

Drowning events mainly occur due to lack of supervision, not because vague symptoms were missed days after visiting the pool. Signs of significant respiratory distress that could indicate a submersion event happen within *hours* of leaving the water. Kids have a history of coughing at the pool that is more significant than getting a drink “down the wrong pipe.” These kids have severe coughing for many minutes after rescue. In addition, they can experience severe fatigue, confusion, fever, nausea or vomiting. These are all symptoms of not getting enough oxygen. In other words, these little kids look sick and they need medical attention.

It is extraordinarily rare for children with minimal symptoms after submersion to rapidly progress to death. In fact, there has been no published medical case of child who had been medically assessed without any symptoms and later died.

Lots of kids get ill days after being at the pool. I mean, my kids go to the pool nearly every day in the summer. The likelihood of them getting ill after a pool day is high during summer months. This does not mean that drowning was contributory to the illness. Keep in mind, lots of germs like to go swimming with your little one, too. Getting illness symptoms after swimming are more likely due to infected water than an unwitnessed submersion event. Ew.

It’s important to distinguish submersion events from the normal post-pooltime puke or tiredness or cough. Without a history of water rescue or submersion, healthy kids can do all these things. For example, both a drowning event and swallowing pool water can make a kid vomit. Vomiting alone does not mean a drowning occurred. Kids can cough and get runny noses the days after leaving the pool. This does not mean a drowning occurred. The distinction is that after a drowning event, there is a progression of symptoms over 2-3 hours. 

Seek emergency medical care whenever your child has excessive cough, isn’t acting right, or isn’t breathing normally after being pulled from the water. If your child is normal after exiting the water and then develops symptoms more than 8 hours later, your doctor still wants to hear from you. Give a call to your pediatrician’s office to talk about next steps. 

Drowning is not rare, but it is preventable. Remember close supervision of experience and inexperience swimmers, use fences and alarms, life jackets - not arm floaties, designate a Water Guardian at the pool, get your kids swimming lessons, swim sober, and did I mention close supervision at the pool? I still love this classic post on Slate that describes what drowning looks like. It’s worth a look.

Summertime is pool time, so get out and enjoy. Please call your doctor if you ever have questions about your child. I know they would be happy to help.