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What You Need to Know About Dry Drowning This Summer

By Rebecca Rovenstine

As the weather warms for summer, for many that means days spent at pools, lakes, and beaches. But for parents: That also means being vigilant about kids and water safety. Despite your best efforts to keep your kids safe and healthy while in the water, you might not realize that there can be danger after water activity. Dry drowning, which happens mainly in children, is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.


What is dry drowning?

First and foremost, it’s important to know that dry drowning is rare. But it is also important to be informed and prepared in case something does happen to a family member.

“Dry drowning, also called a ‘submersion injury,’ is when someone takes in a small amount of water in their nose and/or mouth that can cause a spasm in their airway causing it to close up,” explains David Samadi, MD, at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. 

Dry drowning sets in within an hour after water inhalation and the water doesn’t necessarily reach the lungs. Even more rare is “secondary drowning,” which can happen up to 48 hours later. In this case, the water does enter the lungs.

Niket Sonpal, MD, an internist in New York, explains that “dry drowning is a muscle constraint, a bodily response to taking in water, whereas secondary drowning refers to fluid in the lungs.”


How to prevent dry drowning

The good news is that dry drowning is just as preventable as regular drowning.

“The best ways to prevent any type of drowning includes first and foremost: adult supervision,” Dr. Samadi explains, “When supervising a toddler or preschool-age child in the water, parents or another adult needs to be in the water with them at all times and close enough to be able to touch them. ”

Other ways to prevent drowning and dry drowning include using a floatation device and educating children on water safety through swim lessons.


How to spot dry drowning

Dry drownings can happen anywhere with water: bathtubs, pools, ponds, sinks. For a toddler, just inches of water is enough to drown in. So if you suspect your child inhaled water, watch out for these symptoms of dry drowning:

Difficulty or rapid shallow breathing

Persistent cough

Chest pains

Nostril flaring




Unusual behavior


“In any of the above situations,” Dr. Samadi warns, “the child needs to be evaluated by a doctor immediately.” Call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

“Once paramedics arrive, they will assess the [situation] and act accordingly,” Dr. Sonpal explains. “Treatment can include resuscitation if someone has fainted from lack of oxygen.” 

Dr. Samadi suggests that parents learn CPR because every second counts in a situation like this. 

“Once safe, the person experiencing dry drowning should be observed to make sure their body recovers its usual breathing, and to make sure secondary drowning is not a risk or pneumonia,” Dr. Sonpal says.

Now, keep in mind that dry drowning is rare! You shouldn’t let it stop you from having fun with water activities this summer. Just make sure you—and any other caregiver—know the signs and use precautions to keep your family safe! 


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