What is 'dry drowning' and what are the signs and symptoms parents need to look out for?

Parents need to know about the 'dry drowning' risk [Photo: Getty]
Parents need to know about the 'dry drowning' risk [Photo: Getty]

The summer holidays are nearly upon us and many families will be heading to the pool, with their little ones in tow.

While many parents are well aware of the drowning risk, some likely won’t be quite as clued up on something known as ‘dry drowning’ which can impact children long after they’ve left the water.

What’s more, though rare, the condition can be fatal.

One of the latest cases to make headlines concerned a 4-year-old who almost died from ‘dry drowning’ following a swim in her grandparents’ pool.

Elianna Grace, from Sarasota, US, was enjoying a swim when she inadvertently swallowed some pool water after an incident with a swimming noodle.

The water caused the tot to immediately throw up, but two days after the incident, Elianna developed a fever.

Though it appeared to go down, the fever spiked again and the little girl was rushed to hospital.

There she was diagnosed with chemical pneumonitis, aspiration pneumonia, and perihilar edema.

The water in her lungs had caused both inflammation and a life-threatening infection, but thankfully it was still treatable.

In a Facebook post detailing the incident, the little girl’s mum explained that part of her decision to seek immediate medical help was hearing of a 4-year-old boy dying from ‘dry drowning.’

Now she’s trying to spread awareness to help other parents to know the risks.

What is ‘dry drowning’?

“‘Dry drowning’ is a condition that overwhelmingly affects children,” Dr Diana Gall, from Doctor4U tells Yahoo UK.

“Whilst most people would associate drowning as an event that happens in the water, dry drowning most often happens once the child is out of the pool or sea.”

Dr Gall says ‘dry drowning’ occurs when a small amount of water is inhaled through the nose or mouth.

“This causes a spasm in the airway, making it more difficult for the child to breathe,” she says.

“Water doesn’t always enter the lungs due to the narrowing of the airway, but it can still be dangerous.

“‘Dry drowning’ is also known as a submersion injury, and luckily, it’s a rare occurrence, but it’s still important to know the signs and symptoms,” she adds.

Though rare, 'dry drowning' can be fatal [Photo: Getty]
Though rare, 'dry drowning' can be fatal [Photo: Getty]

While dry drowning symptoms often happen immediately, there is a similar condition called ‘secondary drowning’ that can take up to 24 hours to develop.

Here, water gets into the lungs and starts to build up over time before eventually making it impossible for children to breathe.

However, symptoms of both conditions are exactly the same and include coughing, chest pain, trouble breathing and fatigue.

Sadly, there have been several cases of children dying from dry or secondary drowning.

In 2017 a four-year-old boy tragically died a week after going swimming in Texas.

Frankie Delgado had been suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting but his parents thought it was just a stomach bug.

He was later rushed to hospital where doctors discovered water in his lungs and around his heart.

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What are the signs and symptoms parents need to look out for?

Dr Gall says symptoms include couching, difficulty breathing or changes in breathing, sleepiness very shortly after being in the water (which could indicate a lack of oxygen), forgetfulness or changes in behaviour such as irritability, and vomiting.

“Some children might also experience chest pain,” she adds. “These signs usually appear within 1-24 hours of exiting the water.”

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What should parents do if they think children are suffering from ‘dry drowning’?

“Dry drowning can be fatal if the signs aren’t recognised, so it’s important to take your child to the nearest emergency department if you notice any of the above symptoms after they’ve been exposed to water,” warns Dr Gall.

She also suggests notifying a lifeguard if there are any nearby.

“The hospital may want to X-ray your child to check for fluid on the lungs, and some might need oxygen to increase the blood flow in the lungs and to get them breathing comfortably again,” she adds.

And before parents vow never to allow their children to swim ever again, Dr Gall points out that the condition is very rare and, if caught in time, entirely treatable.

“Dry drowning is an entirely treatable condition if the symptoms are spotted soon enough,” she says.

“However, prevention is always better than a cure, so make sure that your children know about water safety, and supervise them at all times whilst they’re in the water,” she adds.