Drowning outside of the water – Really?

A little-known threat, dry and secondary drowning, many parents are not aware of. The child is out of the pool, toweled off and dressed – out of the drowning zone. Right? Wrong.

I surveyed a number of parents who have been taking their children to pools and to beaches for a long time, and some of them even have children who have turned out to be accomplished swimmers. I was astonished by how very few of these parents knew about dry and secondary drowning, and even fewer knew what to do when faced with the threat. The number of dry and secondary drowning deaths (as reported, 1-2% of the total drowning incidents) is small, but that is still too many. I am sure there are many such drowning incidents, including near-fatal ones that are not reported.

Dry and secondary drowning can occur minutes after the victim has been out of the water or even after 24 hours after the victim has been out of the water. The symptoms of these two kinds are very similar but are different. In many press reports and literature, you may find these two types are being used interchangeably.

Dry drowning happens when the victim inhales water, and the body in order to prevent water from getting into the lungs, causes spasm in the breathing tube and results in constricting it.   In the process, the supply of air to the lungs and oxygen to the blood stream and brain is cut-off. The dry drowning happens shortly after the incident.

On the other hand, secondary drowning happens when the victim actually inhales water in the lungs that results in a build-up of fluid in the lungs – a phenomenon called pulmonary edema. The excess fluid collect in air sacs in the lung and makes it difficult to breathe and cuts off the supply of oxygen. Unlike dry drowning, secondary drowning can happen much later, usually within 1 to 24 hours from the incident.

Both, dry and secondary drowning, have similar symptoms. The usual symptoms – coughing and/or complaining of chest pain; has trouble breathing; shows sign of extreme fatigue; throws up; and feels sleepy. Some parents might take these signals very lightly as regular exhaustion due to swimming, long and tiring day, etc. Due to reduced supply of oxygen to the brain, the victims may even show signs of erratic and unusual behavior. Do not undermine any of these symptoms. The only way to respond to these symptoms is to seek medical help right away, including, calling 911 if the situation dictates.

And, yes, dry and secondary drowning is not limited to the pool and large bodies of water, they can happen even in the confine of your bathtub.

The incidents like the drowning of a 10-year old boy in South Carolina and near-fatal experience of a toddler in California may have drawn some attention and news coverage. But, there is still much need to be done to increase the awareness. Please spread the word!

– Meghna Sil


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