Dry Drowning: What You Need to Know About This Water Danger

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What you may not know is that drowning can take a variety of forms, and that after a person has been submerged in water—even if the episode only lasted several seconds and did not require resuscitation—the danger may not be over.


No doubt you’re aware that it’s crucial to watch your kids closely when they’re near water. And you probably know that when you’re in a pool or lake, you should stay within arm’s reach of children who can’t swim because drowning incidents can happen silently and quickly—sometimes in a matter of seconds. But what you may not know is that drowning can take a variety of forms, and that after a person has been submerged in water—even if the episode only lasted several seconds and did not require resuscitation—the danger may not be over. Once the lungs have inhaled water, this can damage the lung sacs and lead to swelling, which in turn, can disrupt the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and lead to respiratory distress syndrome hours later. If not treated, it could be fatal.

“The effects of aspirating (inhaling) liquid into the lungs aren’t always immediate,” says Kaia Knutson, M.D., chief resident for the emergency medicine and pediatrics program at Indiana University Health. And it could lead to a phenomenon known as dry drowning, secondary drowning, or passive drowning. “But these terms are misleading because the physiology behind all of them is the same,” says Dr. Knutson. “Drowning is a process, not an outcome, and after the lungs have been submerged in liquid, the drowning process can continue over time and cause respiratory impairment.” To find out what you can do to protect your loved ones from this condition, Dr. Knutson explains here.

When most people think about drowning, they tend to think of someone who goes underwater, loses consciousness, and needs resuscitation. But drowning doesn’t always look like that and it doesn’t even have to involve a lot of water. “For instance, a 4-year-old could take in less than an ounce of water into his lungs and cough it out, and it could lead to respiratory distress syndrome several hours later,” says Dr. Knutson.

Fortunately, it is possible to halt this process in its tracks. The most important thing you can do after your child has inhaled water is to watch for signs of breathing problems. “If a child continues to cough, wheeze, or breathe quickly within six hours of the incident, those are signs he needs to go to the emergency room,” says Dr. Knutson. At the hospital, doctors will be able to evaluate respiratory function and provide oxygen, among other supportive care strategies.

Of course, the best way to avoid a drowning incident is to be vigilant about water safety. “Children, particularly those younger than 4, are most at risk of drowning,” says Dr. Knutson. So parents need to be in the water, close by their young children. And when it comes to older children, parents should be supervising carefully, and not on cell phones or drinking alcohol.

“With any water activity, there is always risk, so it’s important to make your child aware that water can be dangerous,” says Dr. Knutson. “Even if children think they are strong swimmers, they must learn that water conditions can be inconsistent, and they need to respect the water.”

The same applies to adolescents and adults. “There is a big peak in drowning among males ages 16 to 24,” says Dr. Knutson, who notes that 70 percent of drowning incidents involve alcohol in young adults. No matter your age or swimming level, have a buddy system and don’t drink alcohol. And when you’re on a boat, wear a life jacket. You can never be too careful when water is involved.

-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman

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