Be aware of dry or secondary drowning for your child’s safety

Susie Hyden - Contributing Columnist

With summer approaching pool safety should be a concern for all parents. Nationwide Children’s Hospital has released some information regarding something that can happen if there is a close call drowning incident with a child. “Secondary” drowning or “dry” drowning occurs in around 5 percent of close call water accidents. Parents should know the signs or symptoms of this condition and what to do if the symptoms show up in their child. It could mean the difference between life and death for a child who initially appears fine after a brief struggle in the water.

Dry drowning

Dry drowning occurs when water irritates the upper airway, causing the vocal cords to spasm and cut down the flow of air into the lungs. This triggers a shock reflex called neurogenic pulmonary edema. The lungs begin to fill with body fluid (not pool water), which interferes with oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Oxygen is depleted, carbon dioxide builds up, the shock reflex strengthens, and a deadly spiral ensues. The symptoms of dry drowning usually begin within an hour of water exposure.

Secondary drowning

Secondary drowning takes a little longer to set in (1 to 24 hours). In this case, a small amount of pool water enters the lungs, disrupting a substance that coats the inside surface of the tiny airways deep inside the lungs. This substance prevents the airways from collapsing and sticking together. With this disrupted, the small airways collapse and air flow is restricted. To make matters worse, body fluid is sent into the lungs (pulmonary edema) in an effort to open the airways. Unfortunately, this interferes with gas exchange, and the deadly cycle we see with dry drowning happens.

Symptoms to watch for

You’ll want to keep a close eye on your child during the 24 hours following a close call in the water. Symptoms of dry drowning and secondary drowning are the same and include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing and/or chest discomfort. Fatigue, irritability and behavioral changes are also common.

What to do

Remain vigilant for 24 hours after a close call in the water, even if your child appears happy and playful with no symptoms at all. If your child begins to exhibit any respiratory symptoms or unusual behavioral, seek medical help right away. Don’t wait! Call 911 if you have to. There is no specific treatment for dry drowning or secondary drowning, but supportive care in a pediatric facility is your child’s best chance for survival.

On the other hand, there’s no reason to panic if your child does not display symptoms. Remember, these are rare events and there’s no way to diagnose them or predict who will be affected before symptoms set in. Simply remain watchful and ready to act.

Susie Hyden

Contributing Columnist

Susie Hyden is registrar of vital statistics at Madison County Public Health. She may be reached by email at or at 740-852-3065, ext. 1527.

Susie Hyden is registrar of vital statistics at Madison County Public Health. She may be reached by email at or at 740-852-3065, ext. 1527.