The Facts About ‘Dry Drowning’

As summer comes into full swing, reports about “dry drowning” will become more commonplace. These reports will claim that so-called dry drowning occurs without water entering the lungs.

However, the American Red Cross, World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations discourage the use of the term “dry drowning.” The use of similar terms, including “near-drowning,” “secondary drowning,” and “delayed drowning,” also is discouraged.

What is drowning?

The WHO defined drowning in 2005 as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” If a person experienced breathing troubles only after exiting the water, then he or she did not drown.

Can you drown without water entering your lungs?

Yes, although these cases are extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning each day, but the CDC does not collect stats on so-called dry drowning, according to the Washington Post.

How does drowning occur without water entering the lungs?

Dry drowning is incorrectly used to describe a scenario caused by a small amount of water ingested in the throat that causes spasms of the vocal cords and the airways, according to ABC News. The spasms create a large amount of negative pressure against the lungs that can cause lung damage and the buildup of protein and fluids. As a result, oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange is prevented, resulting in coughing and difficulty breathing.

What are the symptoms of this type of drowning?

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Faster than normal breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Behavioral changes
  • Diarrhea, in rare instances

How is this type of drowning diagnosed and treated?

Health care providers may hear crackling in the lungs during a physical exam, and they commonly will assess the lungs with chest X-rays. A diagnosis may take several visits to a health care provider because the condition in the early stages might not be advanced enough to be detected.

Treatment is different for every patient. Some may only need pure oxygen through a mask for a period of time. Some may need a breathing tube or ventilator. Most patients will improve with breathing support, and they may additionally be treated with antibiotics.

If you think you or a loved one is suffering from this type of drowning, immediately visit a health care provider.