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Know the symptoms of ‘dry drowning,’ ‘secondary drowning’

Summer is approaching fast, and that means your children will be spending more time in the water. Going to the beach or hopping in the pool can be an excellent way to escape the blazing summer sun, but there are some serious safety issues for which you should be on high alert.

We all know about drowning, but there are less common life-threatening events that are colloquially known as “secondary drowning” and “dry drowning.” These rare occurrences are collectively known as submersion injuries, and if you know the warning signs, you can prevent a potential tragedy.

Secondary drowning

Medically, secondary drowning is known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This occurs when air inhaled into the lungs causes inflammation and edema. The swelling from the edema can happen hours or even days after your child was in the water. Death occurs when the air sacs in the lungs swell to the point where they can no longer deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. Symptoms of ARDS include:

  • Difficult or labored breathing
  • General malaise
  • Skin and nail discoloration
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Fast heart rate
  • Confusion

Dry drowning

The medical term for dry drowning is laryngospasm. A laryngospasm is a reflex that closes off the voice box to prevent fluid from entering the lungs. But when the voice box constricts to keep fluid out of the lungs, air cannot get in either. This can happen if a child inhales water through the nose or mouth, or if they pass out under water. Symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Foaming at the nose or mouth


Though dry drowning and secondary downing are exceedingly rare, the prospect is scary. Submersion injuries can be prevented the same way you prevent drowning: never leave children unattended in the water, provide swimming lessons for your kids and always keep a barrier around your pool.

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