June 5, 2008 -- Recent media reports concerning a 10-year-old boy from Goose Creek, S.C., who died several hours after being in a swimming pool have left many parents concerned about the risks of dry drowning and wondering how they can best protect their children from this health threat.
To find out more about dry drowning, WebMD spoke to Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
What is dry drowning?
Dry drowning is basically drowning without water. With dry drowning, you are not drowning from an immediate immersion in water; it is more of a delayed effect of a small amount of water in the lungs. This can result in laryngospasms, which minimize the amount of water aspirated into the lungs. Respiratory arrest may follow, leading to an inadequate supply of oxygen in the blood, cardiac arrest, and eventually brain death.
Several other mechanisms can cause dry drowning, including acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is an acute, severe injury to most or all of both lungs or electrolyte abnormalities resulting from a dilution of the blood after aspirated water is absorbed into the blood, leading to heart rhythm abnormalities.
How long after an incident is there a risk for dry drowning?
Dry drowning usually occurs between one hour and 24 hours after an incident. A person can have a drowning incident, be pulled out of the water, be OK, and then sometime within the next 24 hours, they can dry drown.
Are there any risk factors for dry drowning?
Yes, there are risk factors and situations in which dry drowning may be more likely, such as if the child is not a good swimmer or a first-time swimmer. Children and adults with underlying lung problems such as asthma may also be at increased risk for dry drowning. To prevent an incident, use common sense and never let inexperienced swimmers in the pool without a lot of supervision.
Is dry drowning rare?
Drowning is a huge problem. About 4,000 people drown each year and 1,400 of these are children. The CDC has no statistics on the number of dry drowning deaths.
Are there any red flags that suggest a person is at risk for dry drowning?
Yes, there are some signs that a person may have a dry-drowning episode. They include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, or pain in chest. All of those things are signals that something could be wrong. If someone comes out of the water and coughs for a minute, then calms down -- that is much different than if the child keeps coughing or complaining of pain. Like the child involved in the incident in South Carolina, a change in mental status and/or lethargy may also indicate that something is wrong.
What should you do if you think a child is at risk?
This is not something that can be handled by a parent. Call a doctor or bring the child to an emergency room if there are signs of dry drowning following a near-drowning incident.
Can dry drowning be treated?
Yes. If it is caught early, dry drowning can be treated. The treatment involves supplying oxygen to the lungs and getting the breathing process restarted.