Decades ago, the medical community largely abandoned the term, after doctors developed a better understanding of breathing capacity and drowning injuries.
Today, some people occasionally use “dry drowning” to describe cases in which liquid makes the voice box spasm and shut, reducing breathing and other vital functions.
This article will discuss the symptoms and causes of dry drowning and explain when to seek medical attention.
What is dry drowning?
Dry drowning can occur many hours after a person inhales water from a swimming pool or other body of water.
Dry drowning once referred to instances in which a person died more than 24 hours after swallowing or inhaling liquid but showed no signs of breathing trouble.
Most medical authorities and organizations now discourage the use of the term.
At present, the medical community has not agreed on a term to replace dry drowning. Some groups use “post-immersion syndrome” or, less commonly, “delayed drowning.”
Today, researchers and doctors occasionally use dry drowning to describe cases in which liquid stimulates the voice box, causing the organ to spasm and shut.
When the voice box spasms, the vocal folds close, and breathing becomes difficult. Liquids may end up in places they should not go, such as the sinuses, and it may be difficult to get air into the lungs.
Dry drowning vs. regular and secondary drowning
Drowning occurs when someone cannot breathe after going below the surface of water or another liquid.
When someone is drowning, lung damage and exposure to liquid cause the major lung passageways to spasm, stopping airflow. Ultimately, people who drown die from a lack of oxygen.
Some doctors once used the terms “wet drowning” and “dry drowning” before the medical community had the right diagnostic tools to examine breathing.
Once they learned that drowning results from a lack of oxygen, not the volume of water in the lungs, the single term “drowning” replaced wet or dry drowning.
Dry drowning once described cases in which other complicating factors were present, such as:
- no early breathing difficulties or signs of a lack of oxygen
- no or very little water in the lungs
- no one else knowing if the person had swallowed, inhaled, or submerged in liquid
Today, doctors realize that a person can die if even a little bit of water enters their lungs. According to the Surfer’s Medical Association, this amount may be as small as 2 milliliters of water per kilogram of body weight.
Some researchers and doctors still occasionally use the term dry drowning. When they do, it typically refers to cases in which water or another liquid causes the voice box and vocal folds to spasm. A severe spasm can reduce airflow enough to be fatal.
Aside from dry drowning, most health authorities and organizations discourage the use of the following medically inaccurate terms:
Near drowning once referred to cases in which a person survived for some period after seeming to have drowned.
The American Red Cross recommend using the terms fatal and nonfatal drowning.
Secondary or delayed drowning
These terms describe situations in which a person dies 24 hours after being immersed in water.
Active and passive drowning
Active drowning typically refers to people who are conscious when they drown, while passive drowning usually refers to people who are unconscious.
Symptoms and when to seek help
A person should seek medical attention if they have trouble breathing after being in water.
If a person was recently in the water, inhaling liquid, splashed with liquid, or drinking, and they show any of the following signs, seek emergency care:
- uncontrollable or continuous coughing
- light-headedness or dizziness
- fast or hard breathing
- abnormal breathing patterns
- trouble breathing
- foam at the nose or mouth
Watch people — especially children — who cough or sputter for a bit before breathing normally again. If they develop any of the above signs at any point, seek immediate medical help.
If a person seems to lack oxygen or may have drowned, anyone trained should immediately begin CPR and get someone else to call for emergency help.
Once the person arrives at the emergency room, they will often undergo medical tests to determine how well they are breathing. Doctors will also check their vital signs, such as their heart rate, body temperature, and oxygen levels.
If the vital signs are all normal, healthcare professionals will usually monitor the person for around 4–6 hours, then allow them to leave the emergency department. If not, they will admit the person to the hospital for longer-term monitoring and care.
There are ways to help prevent drowning. Most involve practicing water safety.
Some key tips include:
- directly supervising children under the age of 4 in any amount of water
- swimming only in supervised areas with a lifeguard on duty
- following lifeguards’ safety warnings
- swimming, with supervision, in designated areas of lakes or beaches
- keeping infants, toddlers, and young children away from any stagnant water
- supervising infants, toddlers, and young children when they are drinking
- wearing life jackets when doing water sports
- taking swimming lessons and teaching children to swim from a young age
- fencing off private pools
- keeping pool gates closed when the pool is not in use
- learning CPR and water safety if frequently supervising others while swimming
- never swimming alone
- never swimming or going near the water when drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs
- removing ladders to inflatable pools when the pool is not in use
- always supervising children using inflatable toys or loungers
Dry drowning is an outdated, widely misused term. Some have used it describe the breathing problems that occur when liquid causes the voice box to spasm.
The outlook for those who experience so-called dry drowning depends on the extent of the injuries and symptoms. The longer someone cannot breathe, the more serious their injuries, and the greater the risk of death.
If a person shows symptoms of trouble breathing or a lack of oxygen, receiving medical care immediately will increase their chance of survival.
Always practice water safety, and supervise children in pools or hot tubs, at beaches, and by other bodies of water.