As we get into the middle of summer and into the hottest days of the year water activity will be at its peak. For parents, this probably means that most of you will be having your kids spend time in the water. While most parents are aware of drowning, there is one term that the media likes to use: “secondary drowning” or “dry drowning” that have been getting some popular use in the media lately. All parents should be aware of these terms and I want to take a little bit of time to talk about secondary and dry drowning.

“Secondary Drowning” and “Dry Drowning”dry drowning

Most people are aware of drowning that consists of swallowing water into the lungs so that it causes severe respiratory distress and even cardiac arrest. There are two terms that the media likes to use which are dry drowning and secondary drowning. Neither of these are exact medical terms and for statistic keeping purposes, the medical community doesn’t differentiate between different types of drowning. To the medical community, secondary and dry drowning is still diagnosed as a drowning because the same physiological response happens. The only difference is that both secondary and dry drowning can happen hours after.

What Is Dry Drowning?

Dry drowning is a condition caused by water hitting the upper part of the airway where the vocal cords are. When the water hits this part of the airway it can cause what’s called a laryngospasm (where the vocal cords are). This spasming of the muscle around the part of the airway can cause swelling. The swelling then in turn can block air from reaching down into the longs. In most cases, the spasming isn’t severe and it stops on it’s own. But for those where the spasms are severe and causing difficulty taking breaths, they need emergent care right away. Call 911 immediately.

What Is Secondary Drowning?

I want you to think of secondary drowning as a delayed drowning. Secondary drowning can happen several hours later after inhaling water into the lungs. In this type of drowning not enough water is inhaled to cause severe symptoms right away such as in a typical drowning. In this cause, a person will inhale a portion of water, start coughing, but still be above water and is able to take breaths afterwards. Often times this can happen purely by accident.

What happens though is that the water inhaled can wash away surfactant in the lungs. Surfactant is viscous like substance in our lungs that helps to keep our tiny air  sacs open when we breath. Without surfactant we would die. When inhaled water washes away the surfactant it not only collapses our tiny air sacs but the water just sits there between the lungs and the cavity that surrounds the lungs. These factors keep blood returning to the lungs from getting reoxygenated. Over the course of several hours swelling in the lungs do to the body’s inflammatory response will cause more difficulty breathing and cause the heart to work harder. Because there is less blood getting reoxygenated, a person could start displaying signs of respiratory distress and confusion. At this point someone should get to a hospital right away.

What To Look For In Secondary Drownings:

  • Shortness of breath including wheezing and crackles
  • Confusion or increased sleepiness: if your child appears to be acting differently after a possible drowning, take them to get evaluated by an emergency room physician. These symptoms could be caused by lack of oxygen to the brain.
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Nausea and  vomiting

Parents, keep an eye on your kids. Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. If you’re concerned your child or a child you know has inhaled water you can never take too much precautions by taking them to get evaluated by a physician.

Stay safe this summer.


Chandi, D., MD., Weinhouse, G., MD. “Drowning (Submersion Injuries).” Up To Date.  January 2016. Web. 4 July 2017.