Dry Drowning/Secondary Drowning: What You Should Know


A person underwater

You’ve most likely heard the terms ”dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” before. While these two injuries are often talked about at the same time and even used interchangeably, the truth is that they are very different, because they are two different water injuries. By recognizing the symptoms of secondary drowning and other types of water trauma, you can be better prepared to offer aid and assistance when needed and when to contact medical professionals for emergency intervention.

Rare But Dangerous Injuries

Both dry drowning and secondary drowning are relatively rare. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for them, however. Especially with younger swimmers, they can be a serious threat to their health that will definitely induce panic (in both you and them) and both can create complications for an extended period of time. If you have a backyard pool, you need to understand the symptoms and treatments to help victims cope, because while these injuries may be more prevalent in children, they can strike adults, too.

What Is A Dry Drowning

A so-called dry drowning happens when a person is experiencing drowning symptoms, but the water never reached the lungs. This happens when the swimmer takes in water through their mouth and nose, and their vocal cords begin to spasm, tightening and closing up. This causes immediate difficulties breathing, forcing the child to gasp and cough as if trying to expel water that isn’t there. Their nostrils may flare as they try desperately to draw in more air, and their chest may visibly heave as it works harder trying to breathe. In extreme cases, this can interrupt their breathing, leading to loss of consciousness or suffocation.

A dry drowning can occur in the water or even right after a child gets out. Moments count, as this is not an injury that can always be “waited out”, in fact, waiting may actually allow the symptoms to worsen. Medical attention should be sought immediately. A healthcare practitioner will work to check their oxygen level and breathing effort. Oxygen may be provided to help ensure they’re getting enough to bring the body out of it, or other interventions may be necessary to halt the spasm that are blocking the airway.

What Secondary Drowning Is

Unlike dry drowning, secondary drowning happens when water does reach the lungs, and this injury can be so dangerous in part because it can take 24-hours or more to present itself in the victim. This water injury happens when a small amount of water has reached the lungs, and it irritates the pleural lining inside them. This irritated area can lead to a fluid build-up in the lungs called pulmonary edema. If this fluid builds up enough, it can cause serious health complications, including death.

Because this edema takes time to fully develop, it is not uncommon for the victim to show few secondary drowning symptoms until the pulmonary edema creates an emergency situation. When you know a child has taken in water, watch them carefully for signs of fatigue, coughing, or other respiratory distress. These could be from simple overexertion, or they could signal a need for immediate medical intervention.

A child swimming in a pool with flotation devices and a snorkel

How To Prevent Dry Drowning And Secondary Drowning

To prevent these serious water injuries, start by promoting overall water safety. There are several active steps you can take to avoid drowning incidents in your pool.

  • Install A Swimming Pool Safety Fence – Safety fences help keep curious or excited children out of your pool area until there is an adult present to supervise them. These fences are designed to prevent climbing and have gaps small enough a child can’t pass through, around, or under the fencing mesh to enter the pool. The gates are both self-closing and self-latching, making them a great way to ensure an unsecured gate can’t lead to tragedy.
  • Use A Swimming Pool Safety Cover – Don’t get safety covers confused with floating covers. Floating covers may keep out leaves, but if a person falls onto it, a floating cover can entangle them, potentially trapping them underwater. Safety covers are anchored to rails along the edge of the pool and can support the weight of a full-grown adult. A professionally installed and closed safety cover serves as a barrier to keep someone from entering the pool inadvertently. If they don’t enter the water, they can’t be the victim of dry drowning.
  • Learn Infant, Child, And Adult CPR And First Aid – These are important life-saving skills for anybody, but owning a backyard pool increases the likelihood that these skills would be needed. As part of your certification classes, you’ll learn to treat a wide range of injuries, including the symptoms of secondary drowning and dry drowning, and how to provide resuscitation in the case of a sudden cardiac attack. Make sure to equip your pool area with a well-stocked first-aid kit, and you’ll have the tools you need to help save a life in the event of an emergency.
  • Promote A Safety Culture – It is never too early to start teaching your kids about pool and water safety. This can include basic swimming lessons, but it goes far beyond that. Make sure they understand only to enter a pool area with the knowledge and supervision of a responsible adult, and to tell that adult if they experience any difficulties, even if they “saved themselves” or it wasn’t “very bad”. This can make an adult aware of potential problems before they become emergencies.

Create A Safer Pool Area

Safety fences and safety swimming pool covers are one of the surest ways to keep people, young or old, out of your pool area when they shouldn’t be there. Contact us today, and one of our specialists will come talk to you about safety options tailored to your pool’s needs. Get a safer pool area and prevent dry drowning with Aqua-Safe Unlimited today.