Dry drowning happens when water irritates the larynx (vocal chords), and the person has a severe inflammatory reaction to it. The reaction causes the vocal chords to spasm (laryngospasm reflex) and that causes them to close. The person then has trouble or cannot pass air into their lungs. Laryngospasm can cause something called neurogenic pulmonary edema, which causes an increase in pressure in the lungs and heart, reducing the body’s ability to get oxygen. Laryngospasm can be triggered by something as simple as droplets of water hitting the larynx. High-speed submersion, such as when you go down a water slide or jump from a high dive, can also cause the reaction.
How is it different from ‘secondary drowning’?
Secondary drowning happens when water gets into the lungs. It is usually a small amount of water, but it fills the air sacs of the lungs, causing pulmonary edema — or fluid in the lungs. With water in the air sacs, there is no room for air, so the person begins to drown. Secondary, or delayed drowning as it is sometimes called, can happen hours after inhaling the water.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of dry drowning and secondary drowning are similar and can be seen from between one hour to 24 hours after the incident. Usually sooner rather than later with dry drowning.
The symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling extremely tired
- Lips or skin turning blue
- Changes in behavior
- A high-pitched breathing sound called stridor
- Foam around the mouth — Anyone pulled from the water who is coughing or sputtering and has foam around their mouth needs emergency care immediately.
If a person who has been in water shows any of these symptoms, call 911 or get them to a hospital emergency room as soon as possible.
How is it treated?
It depends. Treatment can range from observation for a few hours, to administering oxygen, to chest X-rays or more advanced medical support — intubation or use of a ventilator — in the most severe cases. (that is rare).
How do I prevent it?
Here are a few tips:
- Obviously, watch your children when they are in and around water, any water. It takes only moments to take in enough water to cause drowning.
- Make sure kids know how to swim and watch to make sure weak swimmers don't go out beyond their abilities.
- Don't let kids get too tired in the water.
- Encourage them to keep their mouths closed when going under water or when their faces are near the water.
- Remember the symptoms. If you see any in your child, take him to the hospital.
How often does this happen?
Dry drownings and secondary drownings are rare. They account for 1-2% of all drownings in the United States.
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Sources: WebMD; healthychildren.org; livescience.com; clevelandclinic.org