This summer, "dry drowning" isn't something parents need to worry about
Earlier this summer, a 4-year-old child died suddenly. Reports attributed his death to “dry drowning.” The little boy had gone underwater while swimming, like all kids do from time to time. But then, after nearly a week of no respiratory symptoms, he died, ostensibly by drowning.
For parents reading this account, it’s understandably terrifying. Mothers and fathers may be heading out for summer fun concerned that their child, too, will be at risk of sudden death days after going underwater at the pool or after swimming with grandpa in the lake.
The problem is … the information doesn’t exactly add up.
First, “dry drowning” is not a medical term. In fact, in contrast to how we use the terminology conversationally, “drowning” doesn’t even necessarily mean death. The World Congress on Drowning defines it as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment due to submersion or immersion in a liquid.” That means any time someone goes underwater and has persistent trouble breathing because of it, he has drowned. From that incident, there can be three outcomes:
- Fatal drowning, or one that results in death.
- Non-fatal drowning without morbidity, or one that produces no significant injury.
- Non-fatal drowning with morbidity, or one that results in an injured state like hypothermia, pneumonia, or brain damage caused by lack of oxygen.
Any additional terms used to qualify the event – including dry drowning, passive drowning, delayed drowning, secondary drowning and silent drowning – should not be used.
Second, children do not choke on water, appear fine for a week, and then die in their beds.
“Drowning symptoms do not appear days or weeks after a submersion episode. They appear in the first 4-6 hours,” says Dr. Amanda Knapp, Pediatric Associate in the Emergency Department at Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas.
“If your kid has an episode of going underwater and you’re worried that maybe they drowned, watch them for a few hours afterward. If they have no symptoms and they’re acting fine, then you don’t need to worry. If they come up coughing and sputtering a little bit but then they continue to play, keep a closer eye on them. If you notice a persistent and worsening cough, obvious trouble breathing, or an altered mental status – not just being a little tired from a day at the pool, but truly not acting right – then please get an evaluation by a medical professional.”
If you are concerned and decide to take your child in to be seen after a possible drowning incident, what’s likely to happen?
“The doctors will perform an oxygen saturation test and listen to the child’s lungs,” Knapp says. “Depending on the significance of the event, they may watch the child for a few hours. If the lungs are clear, the oxygen saturation is fine, and the child looks good, trust that you’re okay to go home. You can sleep at night and not worry that your child is going to die in her bed.”
While the chances of death or serious injury long after a submersion incident are extremely low, drowning fatalities remain a significant and preventable cause of death in U.S. children.
According to the CDC, there were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States from 2005-2014 — about ten deaths per day. Approximately 1 in 5 of these were children under 15.
“The number one way to prevent a child drowning is close supervision,” Knapp says. “Even if there are 10 adults around a body of water, you need to officially designate one person as the watcher. Other preventative measures are also important: have children wear personal floatation devices, enroll them in swimming lessons, make water safety discussions a part of your trips to the pool, lake or beach, and have supervisors avoid alcohol.” Water wings and noodles are toys, not safety devices. Life jackets can save lives.
The highest risk group for drowning episodes is 1-4 year-olds, followed by adolescents and young adults.
“One-to-four year olds are at the highest risk in residential pools. When we take them to public pools or natural bodies of water, we tend to watch them more closely. Adolescents and young adults, who we tend to trust to know how to swim, are at highest risk in lakes and ponds, where they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors or involve alcohol or other altering substances, which increase the risk substantially."
In short, drowning deaths don’t happen out of nowhere. If a child has experienced a submersion event and is at risk of fatality, they will be quite obviously in distress. Parents with the vigilance to be concerned about this possibility would notice their child struggling enough to seek medical care.
What happened to the little boy earlier this summer was undoubtedly a tragedy, but the actual cause of death was likely not drowning, and certainly not “dry drowning” – a condition that doesn’t exist. Families can enjoy summertime water activities safely by attention to prevention, avoidance of alcohol or drugs while swimming or supervising kids, insisting on life jackets when boating or water skiing, and especially paying close attention when supervising kids in or around the water.
Learn more about drowning prevention and water safety: