Dry drowning and secondary drowning: Symptoms and how they compare

Children swimming as parents about the 'dry drowning' risk during the hot weather. (Getty Images)
Parents need to know about the 'dry drowning' risk during the hot weather. (Getty Images)

With the summer holidays approaching and the half term hot weather continuing 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.

What is dry drowning?

"Dry drowning is a condition that overwhelmingly affects children,” Dr Diana Gall, from Doctor4U told 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.”

Read more: How to stay safe around water in the hot weather

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. (Getty Images)
Though rare, 'dry drowning' can be fatal. (Getty Images)

What is secondary drowning?

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.

Last year Busted musician Charlie Simpson shared the story of his family's "terrifying experience" when his son Jago suffered secondary drowning.

Having inhaled water swimming one morning on holiday, Jago was taken to an accident-and-emergency (A&E) unit that evening, spending the next three days in hospital.

"It was the worst thing we have ever experienced," Simpson said. "The scariest thing of all, is that had we not taken him to hospital when we did, the outcome could have been very different."

"I truly hope no-one ever has to experience this – but I hope to be able to raise some awareness of this frightening condition in case they do."

Read more: Heatstroke vs heat exhaustion

Dry and secondary drowning are both rare, but parents should be aware of the signs. (Getty Images)
Dry and secondary drowning are both rare, but parents should be aware of the signs. (Getty Images)

Dry drowning signs and symptoms

  • coughing

  • 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

  • vomiting

  • possible chest pain

With dry drowning these signs usually appear within one to 24 hours of exiting the water.

Secondary drowning signs and symptoms

  • vomiting

  • fever

  • laboured breathing

  • lethargy

These can start up to 72 hours later, making them hard to diagnose.

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 again 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.