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Secondary Drowning and Dry Drowning –What are they and do I need to worry?

Secondary Drowning and Dry Drowning –What are they and do I need to worry?

Secondary Drowning and Dry Drowning –What are they and do I need to worry?

Child water safety and drowning prevention are responsibilities that parents deal with on an ongoing basis.  Over recent years, new terms such as “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” have been used in media and seen widely in internet searches and social media, potentially deepening the stress and fears around children and water.   


Firstly, it is important to understand that neither of these terms are medical terms that describe a disease, symptom, or cause of illness.  So where do these terms come from, and what do they mean? 


“Dry drowning” has confusingly been used in media and other reports in 2 different ways. 

Firstly, it has been used to describe an event in which the windpipe (or larynx) spasms and closes off during a drowning or near drowning event to protect the lungs from inhaling (also called aspirating) water.  The result is that no water reaches the lungs due to the airway spasming or shut down, which causes difficulty breathing.  This would cause immediate and obvious symptoms and may require emergency care.  


“Dry Drowning” in recent years has sometimes been used in the same way as “Secondary Drowning”  

  • These terms are usually used to describe cases where breathing problems occur as a rare complication of inhaling water into the lungs.    
  • The child may look and act fine at first but then later develops more significant symptoms because of progressively worsening injury or inflammation within the lungs.  
  • Because the symptoms seem to start away from the water, often at home, the terms “dry” and “secondary” drowning have been used frequently and often incorrectly.  


How do I prevent dry or secondary drowning?  Do I need to worry? 

The good news is that standard child water safety to prevent drowning will almost always prevent the complications of aspirating water into the lungs. 

  • Always keeping infants and small children within arm’s reach around water.  
  • Always supervise children while bathing or when near a pool or body of water.   
  • Empty inflatable wading pools, buckets, and bathtubs after every use.
  • Install appropriate fences around pools with self-latching mechanisms, at least 4 feet tall and unable to be climbed.
  • Always wear a life jacket when on a boat.
  • Swim lessons for parents and toddlers/children.  


If your child has a “near drowning” or event where they become submerged in water causing them to aspirate or inhale water, seek medical care, and appropriate follow up, even if they appear fine initially. 

These episodes will almost always have a period of excessive coughing, gagging, difficulty breathing/catching breath, or vomiting even if it is brief.  Single or brief coughs and gagging episodes occur frequently when young children are learning to swim and during normal water play/swimming.  This is how the body keeps the water from getting into the lungs and usually does not result in aspiration of water. Therefore, the risk of complications is extremely low and monitoring at home is usually all that is needed.  


Always seek medical care if your child develops any signs of breathing trouble including persistent cough, rapid or labored breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, pale or blue color on or around the lips.