What is dry drowning or secondary drowning?

Every summer, frightening stories about “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning” show up in social media feeds.  You may scroll past them, thinking they are not a real threat. They’re both real, though rare.


Both are referred to as submersion injuries — if a child is in such distress that a water rescue is necessary, the respiratory system may have been affected but symptoms are not noticeable right away.


Secondary drowning can occur when a child who has been rescued from the water seems fine, but there is underlying lung damage such as swelling. Within hours or days, their condition can change rapidly and dramatically.


“Water-damaged lungs can no longer provide oxygen to the body,” said April R. Mattingly, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Community Medical Associates – Crestwood. “Respiratory problems develop and can become irreversible in a matter of minutes, leading to secondary drowning.”

Summer safety

From bike safety to preventing heat illnesses, Norton Children’s Prevention & Wellness has tips and advice to keep you and your family safe.

Prevention tools

Dry drowning is different and if it’s going to happen, it will happen sooner than secondary drowning — usually within 24 hours of a close call. Dry drowning is an airway spasm resulting from water entering the airway. The spasm prevents water from getting to the lungs, but if the airway doesn’t relax, breathing problems will develop.

Anyone who experiences a near-drowning or close call should be seen by a medical professional immediately after being rescued from the water.

Signs to watch for

  • Change in level of consciousness or personality
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Cough with or without pink, frothy mucus
  • Whistling or abnormal sounds while breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing fast or not at all
  • Turning blue
  • Unconsciousness

Drowning is preventable. Active supervision is key to ensuring water safety, from the bathtub to the neighborhood pool to the lake.

Active supervision means:

  • Staying alert and avoiding distractions, such as reading, eating or using the phone
  • Never taking your eyes off children or leaving them unattended in or around water
  • Continuously scanning the water’s surface and the bottom of the pool
  • Stopping unsafe play and running in the pool area
  • Knowing where to locate and how to use water safety equipment
  • Keeping a phone nearby for emergency use only

Norton Children’s Medical Associates – Crestwood

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