Most parents assume that the risk of their child drowning at the pool, the beach or the lake is over once the child is out of the water.

But “dry” or “secondary” drowning can occur in kids even hours hours later.

What is dry drowning?

In dry downing, someone will inhale a small amount of water either through the mouth or the nose, causing a spasm in the airway that will make it close up. With secondary drowning, the water that was inhaled gets into the lungs, where it causes inflammation that makes it difficult to breathe.

Dry drowning usually strikes soon after the person gets out of the water, but with secondary drowning, a person may not show signs of distress for up to a day. In both instances, people will experience trouble breathing that can result in death in some cases.

“There are so many ways people describe dry and secondary drowning. Some people may use it interchangeably,” said Dr. Erin Washburn, a pediatrician at Novant Health Child & Adolescent Medical Group in Monroe. “Dry implies dry lungs. The water that is ingested causes a spasming of the vocal cords.”

“Some people will use the term ‘dry drowning’ when they are referring to secondary drowning. The child will inhale water into the lungs and will later develop pulmonary edema, which is swelling in the lungs,” she said.

Is it common?

Both events are rare, and account for about 1 percent to 2 percent of all drowning accidents, according to experts. However, the consequences can be deadly so it’s a good idea to be aware of the signs and symptoms associated with them, the doctor said.

“Pulmonary edema is very dangerous and needs to be treated in the emergency room as quickly as possible,” Washburn said.

What to look for?

The symptoms for dry and secondary drowning are similar.

  • Water rescue. If a child is pulled from the pool after a near-drowning, that child should be examined by a medical provider.
  • Coughing.
  • Trouble breathing. Rapid or shallow breathing.
  • Sleepiness. Unexplained fatigue may mean your child is not getting enough oxygen in the blood.
  • Vomiting. Persistent coughing or gagging can result in vomiting.

“Chest pain, shortness of breath and irritability are other common symptoms,” Washburn said.

What to do?

If you are concerned about your child, contact your pediatrician for advice. Your provider may instruct you to go to the emergency room right away. If your child is struggling to breathe, you should call 9-1-1 immediately.

“It’s understandable for parents to be concerned if they suspect dry or secondary drowning. If the child is alert and is not having trouble breathing, call or visit your pediatrician. But if your child is having trouble breathing, go to the emergency room,” Washburn advised.


The best way to prevent a dry drowning accident is to prevent it from happening to begin with. One in five people who die from drowning each year are children 14 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency room care for non-fatal submersion injuries, the agency added.

Two ways to help prevent dry drowning include:

  • Consider swim lessons. Kids who are skilled at swimming are less likely to go under and take in water.
  • Constant supervision. Designate an adult to be a water watcher that closely keeps an eye out of kids swimming.

“Never leave children unattended and make sure they are comfortable in the water and not struggling or thrashing,” Washburn said.