Know the Warning Signs: Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Think the risk of drowning vanishes when you’re out of the water?

Think again.

Dry drowning and secondary drowning can occur after ingesting small amounts of water — and in some cases, these conditions can be fatal. Though rare, it’s important to understand the risks and warning signs, so you can keep yourself and your family safe.

RELATED: 10 Critical Tips to Prevent Drownings

Dry Drowning and Secondary Drowning

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, dry drowning and secondary drowning are different conditions that can occur when water is ingested into the airway.

What Is dry drowning?

Dry drowning happens when you take a small amount of water into the airway, causing the airway to spasm. Dry drowning leads to difficulty breathing and eventually a lack of oxygen. This condition occurs immediately after water ingestion.

When seeking medical attention, consult UPMC CareFinder to locate a UPMC Urgent Care center, Emergency Department, Walk-in Primary Care, or Children’s Express Care close to you. You can even receive an online medical visit with UPMC AnywhereCare.

What Is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning can also occur after swimming.

When someone ingests water, and it enters the lungs, breathing becomes increasingly difficult. Water in the lungs can cause swelling and lower oxygen levels. In some cases, this may lead to cardiac arrest. This condition can take more than 24 hours after water exposure to develop.

Signs and Symptoms of Dry and Secondary Drownings

Common signs and symptoms of dry drowning and secondary drowning can include:

  • Constant coughing – Coughing for an extended period post-swimming can indicate that water has entered the lungs.
  • Trouble breathing – Struggling to breathe can indicate a lack of oxygen.
  • Sleepiness – Oxygen deprivation can cause immediate and unexplained exhaustion.
  • Throwing up – Inflammation and lack of oxygen can cause vomiting and spitting up water.

If you experience any of these symptoms after bathing or swimming, you should immediately seek medical attention.

You can prevent dry and secondary drowning by practicing water safety. Children and adults should take swimming lessons, and adults should always supervise children in the water.

RELATED: Tips for Summer Water Safety

Flotation devices, pool fencing, and other basic safety measures can also help prevent dry and secondary drownings.


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