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Published on July 01, 2015

The Importance of Monitoring Your Child After a Drowning Scare

You know how important water safety is to prevent drowning. But have you ever heard of secondary drowning?

If not, you're not alone. Secondary or "dry" drowning isn't very well known, mostly due to the fact that it makes up a small percentage of all drowning incidents. However, it's just as serious and can be equally as fatal as regular drowning if left untreated.

There’s an important distinction between wet/primary drowning and dry/secondary drowning.

In "wet" drowning, a victim is submerged in water, which ultimately fills the lungs upon loss of consciousness. “With dry drowning, people are still submerged in water,” said Dr. Steven Fisher, chair of the Emergency Department at Abington Hospital - Jefferson Health. “But instead of water getting into the lungs and filling them, the larynx (vocal cords) spasms shut so they can’t breathe and drowning occurs.”

Secondary drowning occurs when someone breathes in or aspirates fluid during a near-drowning incident. “When this happens, the fluid that lubricates the lungs (surfactant) is washed out, which makes it difficult to breathe and can lead to progressive lung injury,” said Dr. Fisher. “You may get someone out of the water, get water out of the lungs, and get the victim talking, but then a delayed injury can occur.”

Typically, the majority of dry drownings result in acute respiratory distress syndrome or noncardiogenic pulmonary edema, and supportive measures are administered based upon the condition of the organs that are damaged or under distress. In many cases, patients are treated with oxygen or ventilation.

Although symptoms of dry drowning typically show within eight hours of a nonfatal drowning incident, a person can appear nearly normal before the signs become serious and/or apparent. However, if left unaddressed, it can cause breathing difficulties, brain injury and even death.

Look for the signs of dry drowning like difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent coughing, sudden changes in behavior, extreme fatigue, and fussiness (particularly in young children).

“What parents probably want to know is whether or not they should be worried if their child had a nonfatal near drowning event,” said Dr. Fisher. “If someone has a drowning experience and passes out, or if they’re experiencing the symptoms of dry drowning, they definitely need to go to the emergency room.”


To prevent any drowning, Dr. Fisher said parents and caregivers should practice water safety. This includes closely monitoring inexperienced swimmers and children in the water, learning CPR, teaching kids how to swim and stay safe in the water, and putting a fence around the pool to prevent kids from accidentally falling in. Even the most capable of swimmers can get into trouble, so it’s important that you stay as safe as possible and go to the ER in case of an emergency.

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