What you need to know about Dry (Secondary) Drowning

Did you know that dry drowning can kill hours after someone has been submerged in water?

Interestingly very few people know about dry drowning. When we talk about it on Safe and Sound first aid  courses people look quite shocked and the general response is: “we didn’t know that someone could drown like that.” In fact, I suspect that few people know about dry or secondary drowning.  It’s not just children that can fall victim to this, anybody who has had a drowning incident, however seemingly mild could be at risk.

This is something that a mother of a ten-year-old boy sadly also found out. Her son died from “dry drowning” more than an hour after going swimming and walking home with her.

“I never knew a child could walk around, talk, speak and their lungs be filled with water. Johnny must have got some water in his lungs while he was swimming in his local pool. He didn’t show any signs of respiratory distress, but he had an accident in the pool and “soiled himself”.”

His mother said she bathed him and he told her he felt sleepy. When she went to check on him later she saw his face was covered in a “spongy white material”. He was rushed to hospital but it was too late.

So what is dry drowning and how does it happen?

If a child has inhaled (aspirated) even a small amount of water (as little as 2.5-30mls), it can trigger a reaction in the lungs which can be fatal, even 24hrs after the initial incident.

If enough water is inhaled then it can wash away the chemical (surfactant) which keeps part of the lungs (alveoli) open.  Without this surfactant, the lungs begin to collapse.  Then the body’s own fluids as well as those swallowed/inhaled, are able to seep into the lungs.  This prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from being exchanged and effectively cause the patient to drown.  This can occur much later than the initial incident and without any more fluid being inhaled.

This is called dry drowning or secondary drowning.

Symptoms of dry drowning include:-

  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Pain when breathing (especially when taking deep breaths)
  • Coughing
  • Possible wheezing

Symptoms are sometimes exacerbated when lying flat.

In young children, submersion in cold water (<10 degrees C) can stimulate a reaction known as the ‘Mammalian Diving Reflex’.  This causes the patient to enter into a state of hibernation whereby the body slows its breathing and heart rate.

Drowning in freshwater is often worse than drowning in saltwater as freshwater is able to leak into blood cells and cause them to burst.

If you or your child has an incident in the water get yourself or the child checked out immediately at an A&E or Urgent care centre.  However mild it is – better always to be safe.

And most important get yourself booked onto a First Aid course and learn how to perform CPR  – it really could make the difference between life and death.