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What is Dry Drowning, Know Its Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

What is Dry Drowning?

When a person drowns there is a tendency to gulp or inhale water in the state of panic. After being taken out from the water the person is in a normal condition and we feel that the danger is over. However, the person may have inhaled air when being submerged under water. This can be dry drowning, the symptoms of which can be seen later. Let us understand the dry drowning symptoms and treatment to be able to manage the condition better.

What is Dry Drowning?

Dry Drowning Symptoms

Dry drowning is a condition in which symptoms can occur hours after the person has submerged in water. It is a serious condition which can cause complication and even death. Dry drowning occurs mostly in children, it is therefore important to know the dry drowning symptoms in children, to provide prompt medical attention.1 It is also known as secondary drowning.

In dry drowning, the working of lungs is affected due to which the lungs are unable to exchange oxygen. It occurs due to the inhalation of water while the person was submerged in water. The person inhales and swallows the water, which enters the lungs and slowly worsens the lung’s air exchange. The symptoms appear late and hours after the person is taken out of water. Due to submersion the lung function declines rapidly, which is dry drowning. In dry drowning, the lung function is impaired and the oxygen cannot be properly exchanged in the lungs. It is due to the water which was inhaled while the child was submerged in water. Water enters the lungs and slowly worsens the lung’s air exchange. The symptoms appear hours after the water submersion when the lung function declines rapidly.

In toddlers, the dry drowning symptoms are difficult to spot when compared with an older children as they may not be able to communicate well.

The signs and symptoms of dry drowning are-

  • Lethargy and tiredness, which means not enough oxygen is getting into the blood.
  • Persistent coughing with increased work of breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headache
  • Vomiting, which is a sign of stress in the body due to inflammation

Lung injury can lead to pneumonia, which can further deplete oxygen levels in the body. Impairment of oxygen exchange can eventually lead to shut down of the child’s organs.

Dry Drowning Treatment

Dry drowning treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms of the patient. If any of the symptoms is suspected emergency care should be taken immediately without any delay. Keep the child calm till the medical help arrives, on staying calm the windpipe muscles relax quickly.

The doctor would examine the child, breathing pattern, pulse, oxygen and check for signs of impaired lung function. In case of mild symptoms, careful observation is needed and in serious cases, the doctor advises chest X-ray or supplementary oxygen. In case of respiratory failure, extra support is required i.e. intubation of the child or need for a ventilator is assessed.2 The main aim of treatment is to improve the blood flow to the lungs and make the child breath well.

How Can You Prevent Dry Drowning?

While immediate treatment of dry drowning is necessary, it is also important to know about the preventive steps. The preventive measures of dry drowning include

Swimming Lessons- Children can start taking swimming lessons as early as the age of one. Swimming is one of the lifesaving skills and children can get trained in swimming at an early age if they enjoy going into the water.

Supervision- Always monitor the child closely in and around the water. The parent or the guardian should not be far than an arm’s length from the pool.

Water Safety Measures- Children should wear floating devices in water if they do not know how to swim and even when in boats. It is important for all to follow the safety instructions and wear protective gear when participating in water games or pool activities.

Along with all these safety measures always pay attention to the child’s signs after swimming. Dry drowning symptoms present later and can go unnoticed, hence it is essential to be vigilant to any warning signs. Get them checked if any signs of troubled breathing are observed. If children have any incident of drowning or near drowning accident, make sure to get them evaluated by a doctor, especially if any signs and symptoms of dry drowning are noticed.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1714551/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1418124/
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:June 20, 2019

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