Imagine that you are supervising your child swimming at the beach or pool and notice that he or she is struggling in the water. You pull your child out of the water and aside from coughing, spitting, feeling stressed, and possibly embarrassed, you go on with your day as planned. Later during the day this same child is coughing more, complains of difficulty breathing and is uncharacteristically feeling very fatigued. He or she may be experiencing secondary drowning symptoms also known as dry drowning. Although uncommon, it is a serious medical emergency calling for immediate medical attention.
James Orlowski, MD, a drowning research scientist, believes that 1-2% of all drownings can be attributed to secondary or dry drowning. Dr. Orlowski explained that secondary drowning occurs when small amounts of water are inhaled, triggering airway spasms initially resulting in difficult breathing. As the condition progresses, fluid builds up in the lungs causing pulmonary edema and if not treated can cause brain injury and/or death. Dr. Orlowski added that a victim of secondary drowning can be acting normally for hours prior to the onset of symptoms. Secondary or dry drowning patients are treated at a hospital with oxygen or ventilation.
The key is to observe and act on the symptoms including troubled breathing, chest pain, coughing, extreme fatigue and/or sudden, uncharacteristic behavior change. As noted above, immediate medical attention is imperative. Calling 911 is the most ideal and optimum means of receiving both stabilizing and ongoing medical attention for this serious and life threatening medical emergency.
Secondary or dry drowning can happen to adults as well. The importance of water safety for all of us and parental supervision for children is paramount. Enjoy time at the beach and pool but be aware that secondary drowning is real and potentially fatal.