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Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning

By Amanda Gardner
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Anita Schroff, MD

If you're like most parents, you probably figure once your child is done swimming or playing in the water, his risk of drowning is over. But "dry" and "secondary" drowning can happen hours after he's toweled off and moved on to other things. There are steps you can take to keep your child safe.

These types of drowning can happen when your child breathes water into his lungs. Sometimes that happens when he's struggling while swimming. But it can be a result of something as simple as getting water in his mouth or getting dunked.

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It can happen to adults, but it's more common in kids because of their small size, says Raymond Pitetti, MD, associate medical director of the emergency department at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

With dry drowning, water never reaches the lungs. Instead, breathing in water causes your child's vocal chords to spasm and close up after he's already left the pool, ocean, or lake. That shuts off his airways, making it hard to breathe.

Secondary drowning happens a little bit differently. Your child's airways open up, letting water into his lungs where it builds up, causing a condition called pulmonary edema. The end result is the same: trouble breathing.

Symptoms of dry drowning usually happen right after any incident in the water. Secondary drowning generally starts later, within 1-24 hours of the incident, Pitetti says.

Both events are very rare. They make up only 1%-2% of all drowning incidents, says James Orlowski, MD, chief of pediatrics at Florida Hospital Tampa.

Symptoms

Dry drowning and secondary drowning have the same symptoms. They include:

Your child may also have changes in behavior such as such as irritability or a drop in energy levels, which could mean the brain isn't getting enough oxygen.

What to Do

If your child has any signs of dry drowning and secondary drowning, get medical help. Although in most cases the symptoms will go away on their own, it's important to get him checked out.

"The most likely course is that the symptoms are relatively mild and improve over time," says Mark Reiter, MD, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

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