Drowned on dry land
A day after a water accident, a child could suffer from dry drowning.
Dry drowning is often confused with delayed drowning. This happens when there is water in the lungs but the victim is still able to walk around and play.

The difference is that with 'dry drowning' there is actually very little water in the lungs and is caused by the lungs no longer being able to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream (which is why it can take a few hours before you see anything is wrong). 

The victim dies from lack of oxygen to the brain (unlike 'normal drowning' where water on the lungs stops breathing altogether in a very short space of time).   

How dry drowning happens

When water is breathed into the lungs, it fills up some of the oxygen-rich pores of the lungs and this reduces the lungs' ability to oxygenate the blood as it passes through.  

There may also be a spasm of the larynx (breathing tube) that keeps inhaled water from going to the lungs. This spasm can lead to high pressure and fluid leaking in the lungs. Although the lungs don't fill up with pool water, they still fill up with fluid and cause breathing problems.

The facts

10 to 15% of all drownings are classified as 'dry drowning' and can occur up to 24 hours after a small amount of water gets into the lungs.  It can even happen to children in the bath.

Fortunately, if you are aware of the warning signs, you can get help before it is too late. If caught in time, dry drowning can be treated at a hospital by supplying oxygen (under pressure) to the lungs.

There are 3 important warning signs:
  • difficulty breathing
  • extreme tiredness
  • changes in behaviour (abnormally cranky or aggressive)
These symptoms are the result of reduced oxygen flow to the brain.

Other dry drowning facts
  • Dry drowning often occurs after a child or adult enters the water forcefully (from a high diving board or steep slide).  Usually they take a breath too late and inadvertently breathe in a gulp of water.  Their larynx can also spasm from a sudden gush of water. If your child is diving or sliding, pay special attention.
  • If your child chokes or gags when they are in or around water, this is another time to pay close attention in the hours that follow.
  • Remember that this can happen at bath time too - only a small amount of water is necessary to cause major damage.
  • Monitor your child's breathing if you are concerned.  Difficulty breathing, painful breathing or shallow breathing are all red flags. Over 20 respirations per minute can indicate a problem.  
  • Check for a persistent cough or pain in the chest.
  • Sweaty, pale, blue or greyish colour skin are signs of poorly oxygenated blood.
  • Vomiting or involuntary defecation immediately following a swimming session is something to be concerned about - take your child to the hospital immediately (even if it ends up being nothing).
  • It is important to note that dry drowning usually follows some kind of submersion in the water where the child felt like he/she was drowning. It seldom happens to a child who is simply swimming and doesn't have any kind of incident.
 To help prevent dry drowning

  • Tell your children to keep their mouths closed when they jump in the pool.
  • Have them enter really cold water slowly.  Diving into very cold water can be a huge shock to the heart and can also result in sudden water inhalation.
  • If your child does swallow water or cough while they are swimming, keep a close eye on them for the next day.
Dry drowning is something to be aware of, but please do not panic every time your child is in the water. Most children swallow water and cough it out with no harmful effects whatsoever. The main thing is to know what to look out for and to respond to any symptoms within 24 hours of swimming. Keep this knowledge in the back of your mind, but try not to dwell on it. Have fun with your children this summer and simply be calmly observant.

How much do you know about dry drowning?

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