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Dry Drowning in Children: Everything You Need To Know

Dry drowning, otherwise known as secondary drowning, presents a hidden danger following water exposure. Not many individuals are familiar with this phenomenon.

As Dr. Stephen Robert, Associate Director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, explains, dry drowning is a type of acute lung injury resulting from water aspiration. This condition evolves over a period of minutes to hours after exposure to water and can rapidly deteriorate into a life-threatening state of respiratory failure.

cute girl in pool

The mechanics of dry drowning involve the inhalation of water into the lungs. This incident leads to an inflammatory response, causing the lungs to swell and fill with fluid - a condition known as pulmonary edema.

Interestingly, and dangerously, this can occur even when the child does not appear to be in distress or fully submerged in water. It is vital to dispel the misconception that a child must be visibly struggling in the water for a drowning event to occur. Dry drowning can happen subtly, without overt signs of struggle, making it a silent threat that requires our full attention.

Understanding the Prevalence of Dry Drowning

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning ranks as the primary cause of death in children aged between 1 and 4 years. A stark look at the statistics reveals that every day in the United States, there are approximately 11 fatal unintentional drownings (equivalent to 4,000 per year) and 22 nonfatal drownings (around 8,000 per year). These figures illustrate the significant magnitude of the problem.

The majority of these tragedies could be prevented with increased awareness of the warning signs and effective water safety precautions. More so, it emphasizes the importance of robust water safety measures and parental vigilance in keeping our children safe when they are in or near water.

This statistic underscores the importance of understanding the risks and symptoms of dry drowning, which might otherwise be easily overlooked.

child holding red cross

Identifying Symptoms of Dry Drowning in Children

The symptoms of dry or secondary drowning typically manifest within 24 hours following the exposure incident. Parents, caregivers, or anyone supervising children near water should remain vigilant for signs such as coughing, lethargy, irritability, labored breathing, and vomiting.

In severe cases, dry drowning can culminate in a pulmonary edema, an emergency medical condition where an excessive amount of fluid fills the lungs. This accumulation of fluid can impair gas exchange, leading to respiratory distress and potentially causing damage to the lungs and brain. At its most severe, dry drowning can lead to fatality.

It's essential to look out for potential signs of distress in children, such as coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing, especially after they have been in the water. You may also notice behavioral changes such as irritability or unusual sleepiness. These changes in mood, energy levels, or normal behavior can often be a subtle sign that something is not right.

ambulance at hospital

When to Seek Medical Help for Suspected Dry Drowning in Children

Given that dry drowning symptoms may not appear immediately, it's crucial to seek medical attention as soon as possible after any incident involving a child inhaling or sputtering in water.

Early signs of dry drowning can include coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, or extreme fatigue. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms following a water incident, it's critical to seek immediate medical attention. Rush them to the emergency room or dial 911 without delay.

Another vital component to keep in mind is that dry drowning can result in behavioral changes, such as confusion or lethargy. In more severe cases, children may even lose consciousness. Therefore, it's essential to observe your child closely for any unusual behaviors or signs of distress, even if they may not seem overtly related to a breathing problem.

This condition is considered a medical emergency, and as such, erring on the side of caution is always the best approach. Even if you're unsure, it's better to have a child checked out by a professional to rule out the possibility of dry drowning.

group swim lesson

Preventing Dry Drowning in Children: A Proactive Approach

When it comes to preventing secondary drowning, vigilant supervision of children while they're swimming is crucial. For those who are not confident in their swimming abilities, consider enrolling in a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) course, like the ones offered by Lifeguard LI.

Teaching children safe swimming practices is another essential preventative measure. Instruct your child never to swim alone and to exit the water immediately if they start to feel tired or dizzy. It's important to communicate that feeling fatigued in the water is not a challenge to be overcome but a warning sign that needs immediate response.

Swimming Lessons as a Preventive Measure

Swimming lessons aren't just about learning strokes and techniques; they're critical survival skills, especially for children. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health discovered that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.

As an experienced first responder, I've encountered numerous cases where swimming lessons have literally saved lives.

One case that springs to mind is a toddler named Lily. Lily was a vibrant, curious 3-year-old, whose family frequented a local community pool during the summer. After witnessing a close call with Lily nearly stumbling into the deep end, her parents decided to enroll her in swimming lessons.

Over the weeks, not only did Lily learn how to float and paddle, but also the concept of water safety: staying away from the pool's edge, not going into the water without an adult present, and importantly, how to signal for help. Just a month later, Lily accidentally tripped near the pool during a family gathering.

Because of her lessons, she managed to stay afloat and alert her parents, preventing a potential tragedy. It was a profound testament to the power and impact of swimming lessons.


The Importance of a "Water Watcher"

A designated 'Water Watcher' is an integral part of any water-related activities. Their role is not just to keep an eye out for potential accidents but also to recognize the subtle signs of distress that can precede incidents like dry drowning.

Let me illustrate this with an incident involving a family I once worked with. They were on a summer vacation at a lake house. Their 8-year-old son, Jake, was an enthusiastic but novice swimmer. His uncle was appointed as the 'Water Watcher' during their swimming sessions.

One day, Jake inhaled some water while attempting a new swimming stroke. Although he coughed it out and resumed swimming, his uncle noticed that Jake's energy seemed off afterward. Jake was breathing more heavily than usual, seemed drowsy, and complained of chest discomfort.

Remembering the symptoms of dry drowning from a water safety seminar, Jake's uncle immediately alerted the family, and they rushed Jake to the local ER. The doctor confirmed that Jake was experiencing a mild case of dry drowning. Thanks to the vigilant 'Water Watcher', Jake received prompt medical attention and made a full recovery.

Aiding a Dry Drowning Victim

In the event of a dry drowning incident, the importance of immediate and appropriate response can't be overstated. I recall a case where a quick-thinking bystander saved a life.

During a beach outing, a 6-year-old girl, Mia, got caught in a wave and ended up swallowing some seawater. She emerged coughing but insisted she was fine. However, an off-duty lifeguard, also on the beach, noted her persistent cough and increasingly pale complexion. He approached the family and suggested they monitor Mia closely, citing the possibility of dry drowning.

As the afternoon progressed, Mia became unusually fatigued and her cough worsened. Remembering the lifeguard's advice, her parents quickly called emergency services. While waiting for the paramedics, the lifeguard put Mia in the recovery position, slightly tilted to allow any fluid to drain from her mouth and prevent further aspiration.

This rapid response was instrumental in Mia's recovery. In the hospital, she was given oxygen therapy and monitored overnight. This incident highlights the critical role that immediate assistance plays when someone is exhibiting signs of dry drowning.

Through extensive education, precautionary measures, and immediate response, dry drowning can be effectively addressed and prevented. It is our collective responsibility to safeguard the younger generation around water bodies and ensure they can enjoy water activities safely.

Long-term Consequences of Dry Drowning in Children

While it might appear as a minor incident at first glance, dry drowning can lead to serious long-term health problems. These complications include conditions like pneumonia, bronchitis, brain damage, or even death. It's essential not to underestimate the impact of a dry drowning event.

Vigilant supervision near water is the best prevention strategy against these complications. Timely treatment and prompt recognition of symptoms can significantly reduce the impacts of dry drowning.


Dry drowning poses a significant risk to children who ingest water through the nose or mouth. While it's challenging to eliminate the risk completely, there are proactive steps we can take to drastically reduce the chances.

Vigilant supervision, CPR training, teaching water safety rules, and designating a responsible "water watcher" can provide a protective layer against the threat of dry drowning. Symptoms like breathing difficulties can be identified promptly, and quick medical intervention can effectively manage respiratory problems.

Organizations like Lifeguard LI dedicate themselves to promoting water safety and preventing drowning. For more resources on keeping your child safe around water, consider visiting our website. Awareness, preparedness, and vigilance are our best defenses against the silent threat of dry drowning.


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Hey, I'm Steve Grella, founder of Lifeguard LI. It is my mission to teach every capable person CPR and lifesaving skills. My only question is, do you have what it takes to save a life?


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Steve Grella is a father of two young boys. He is a Police Detective, EMT, lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, who brings over 20 years of knowledge and expertise in safety and service. He has dedicated his life to educating students in vital lifesaving training and now strives to provide expert resources to arm you with the skills and training to one day save a life if called upon.

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