Dry And Secondary Drowning: What Parents Need To Know

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are two scary topics for parents. These kinds of drowning happen a while after a child leaves the water. Their unpredictability makes these scenarios extra frightening. It is important to know the warning signs.

Drowning deaths rise during the summer when children spend more time playing in the water. In fact, submersion drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children. Kids can drown in very shallow levels of water. However, not all drowning occurs suddenly. It is possible to drown hours after leaving the water when everything seems OK.

Post-Immersion Syndrome

Death from water inhalation after leaving the water is called post-immersion syndrome. There are two types of post-immersion syndrome, commonly referred to as dry drowning and secondary drowning. Dry drowning, or laryngospasm, occurs when the windpipe muscles become constrained. This happens as a protective measure during an incident where water might get into the lungs. However, it can also prevent air front entering the lungs and lead to death. Dry drowning occurs within an hour of water inhalation.

Secondary drowning is another type of post-immersion syndrome. Secondary drowning also kills after a seemingly dealt-with water scare, but it happens very differently from dry drowning. Secondary drowning occurs when a small amount of water enters the lungs and causes inflammation. The swelling prevents oxygen from getting into the bloodstream, causing death.

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Neither dry drowning nor secondary drowning is true drowning, which describes water flooding the lungs. Secondary drowning is close to accurate because it's caused by water in the lungs, but with dry drowning, no water gets into the lungs at all. Instead, it's caused by the body's reflex to prevent this. Because of this, both terms are considered outdated by medical professionals. However, they are still used within the general public.

Both types of post-immersion syndrome happen after a near-drowning incident, where a child either inhales some water or nearly does. They both occur later on, often after everything seems to be fine. Luckily, both of these occurrences are extremely rare, and there are warning signs to alert you to the danger. Knowing the warning signs can save lives.

Warning Signs of Dry or Secondary Drowning

A child who might be experiencing post-immersion syndrome will have difficulty breathing. They will also have trouble talking. Kids who cannot breathe will struggle to speak, so they may not communicate what is happening with their caregivers. If your child has a water scare, it is important to keep a close eye on them afterward and encourage them to speak.

Other signs of post-immersion syndrome include coughing or chest pain. Your child may be sleepier than usual or have low energy. Remember that secondary drowning can happen days after the incident, and continue to monitor.

READ MORE: How To Rescue A Drowning Person

What To Do If Your Child Might Be Experiencing Dry or Secondary Drowning

If you suspect that your child may be experiencing dry or secondary drowning, call 9-11. This is a case of better safe than sorry, and you can't be too careful. Although rare, both events are deadly and emergency care can prevent that.

Children aged two and under, or children with developmental delays, should be assumed at risk of post-immersion syndrome if they are submerged under water for any amount of time. Because of their limited verbal skills and lack of reasoning, the safest thing to do is to get them immediate emergency care.

As panicked as you may be, try to keep your child calm during a possible case of dry drowning. If he is experiencing a laryngospasm, anxiety will exacerbate the tightening of the muscles. Attempt to subdue him so that the muscles can relax. He can only breath again when they release. Soothing him is your best move as you wait for emergency help. Remember that kids pick up on our emotions so keep your own panic in check as best as you can.


The best forms of prevention are supervision and swim lessons. Always keep your eyes on your child if they are in the water, even if they know how to swim. Ideally, be in the water interacting with your kids.

Along with supervision, give your child the skills he needs to keep him safe. Swimming lessons save lives. The more proficient he is in the water, the less likely it is that an incident will occur that could lead to post-immersion syndrome. Regardless, continue to supervise closely.

Dry and secondary drowning are both extremely rare, so there is no need to panic every time your child gets in the water. However, it is important to be aware that they can happen and know the signs.

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