Dry Drowning Symptoms & Causes

Dry Drowning Symptoms & Causes

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of death among children, with an average of 22 drownings and 11 drowning deaths per day in 2021 alone.

Although this data is certainly alarming and might make parents question the safety of water-based activities, there are ways to ensure that you and your children remain safe from drowning.

In this article, we explore what the three main types of drowning look like, and dive most deeply into the phenomenon of “dry drowning”—a non-medical term for when someone exhibits the symptoms of drowning but without any actual water present in their lungs. Read on to uncover the main symptoms of dry drowning, and the steps you can take to protect yourself and your family this season.

The 3 Types of Drowning

Wet Drowning 

When someone experiences wet drowning, a laryngospasm—or spasm of the vocal cords—occurs by water entering the airways. In most drowning cases, the spasm relaxes and water enters the lungs. In a much lower number of drowning cases, the spasm does not relax and no water enters. This is known as dry drowning.

Dry Drowning 

Dry drowning occurs when the vocal cords get irritated enough from taking in water through the nose or mouth that they spasm and close. Though water never reaches the lungs, this spasm shuts off your airways, making it difficult if not impossible to breathe.

It’s important to remember, however, that dry drowning is not an actual medical condition. According to Dr. Amy Groen, DO, of UnityPoint Health in Iowa, “It is a term that has been used and sensationalized by the media to describe when lungs of drowning victims contain no water. The reason for this is because the body forcefully closes the airways. This can happen when water is attempting to enter the lungs.”

Secondary Drowning 

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are non-medical terms used to refer to delayed symptoms experienced after submersion in water. “These terms (medically known as submersion injuries) are often used interchangeably—even by some experts—but they’re actually different conditions,” says Mark R. Zonfrillo, M.D. at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

According to experts, during secondary drowning, a little bit of water gets into the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling that makes it difficult or impossible for the body to transfer oxygen to carbon dioxide and vice versa. Where dry drowning usually occurs soon after exiting the water, with secondary drowning, there can be a delay of up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress.

Symptoms of Dry Drowning

Submersion injuries are rare, but if you’re going to be spending time in the pool, lake, river, or ocean, it’s smart to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms. Some of the most common include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Repetitive coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sudden fatigue or drop in energy level

How to Prevent Dry Drowning

The steps needed to prevent dry drowning reflect those needed to prevent any form of drowning. Most commonly, parents should:

  • Provide your child with swimming lessons.
  • Enforce water safety through supervision at all times.
  • Encourage the use of flotation devices.
  • Only allow swimming in areas that have lifeguards on duty.
  • Never let your child swim alone.
  • Never leave a baby alone near any amount of water.

If you do encounter a situation in which you think your child has experienced any form of drowning, the safest choice is to get them medical attention right away, as some forms of drowning don’t start showing symptoms until as late as 24 hours after the incident.

Protecting Yourself from Liability

While the risk of drowning is high in any body of water, homeowners who have pools on their property must follow necessary precautions to both keep their families safe from danger, and to protect themselves financially from any water-related accidents that might occur on their property in general.

This might include installing signage reminding people to walk not run in slippery pool areas, clearly marking the depths of the pool, having easy access to life jackets or other flotation devices, always having an adult supervising children in the water, and more. 

These precautions will help to keep invited guests safe, but homeowners must not forget the additional steps required to protect those who are not invited to swim, such as a child who might accidentally wander into the water, or people who choose to use your pool without permission.

“Pools are considered an ‘attractive nuisance’ in insurance, because somebody you don’t know might see that you have a pool on your property and will be drawn to it,” says Stephanie Olsen, a Senior Personal Lines Underwriter at Central Insurance.

From an insurance perspective, even if you do not invite these individuals onto your property, you are considered responsible for what happens to them while they are there.

“If someone were to visit your pool, even without your permission, and something were to happen to them like an injury or a drowning…you are still considered responsible for that injury or death.”

Stephanie Olsen, Central Insurance

This is why local and city ordinances often insist pool owners install a fence around the  pool, and include a lock on that fence for extra protection.

“A fence is your first line defense to keep something like that out or from happening,” Olsen continues. She also warns that, “even if you are a responsible homeowner and have a lock on a gate that restricts access to the pool, if you don’t keep that lock in good working condition and somebody gets injured because of it, that’s your responsibility as the owner.”

For this reason, insurance agencies often suggest homeowners with pools invest in added protection like umbrella coverage

A personal umbrella policy is designed to provide an additional amount of liability insurance protection and a broader range of coverage, including pool-related accidents. In the event of such an accident, this umbrella policy is able to cover any additional payment not already handled under the homeowner policy.

Learn More: Umbrella Coverage: What It Is & Why You Need It

Explore the full benefits of umbrella coverage on Central’s website, then get in touch with an agent today to learn how to enroll.

Post originally published July, 2020 and has since been updated for clarity.

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