Is 'Dry Drowning' Real?

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Each summer, articles warning parents of the subtle signs of drowning start spreading across social media. The portrayal of the threat—as a silent killer that parents may not see before it's too late, contrary to the dramatic scenes portrayed in movies and TV—may be what's fueling the latest batch of misinformation making the rounds online.

In the past month, ABC News, Prevention, and People have reported on the dangers of "dry drowning" or "secondary drowning"—a condition that, according to medical professionals, doesn't exist. Every piece describes the same phenomenon: A child swallows water while playing in a pool or at the beach, but appears to recover quickly. Then up to 24 hours later, they start to exhibit life-threatening symptoms such as fever and difficultly breathing. The cause is either the inhaled water triggering spasms in their airways or water in the lungs leading to swelling and inflammation.

To parents, the thought that a little swallowed water could spur such serious problems is terrifying, but pediatric nurse Dani Stringer of the health blog KidNurse assures readers that these outlets aren't telling the whole story. "There are many, many legitimate concerns and threats to protect our children from," she wrote. "But thankfully, dry drowning isn't one of them, and it doesn't have to keep you up at night."

The terms "drying drowning" and "secondary drowning" are so misleading that their use is discouraged by the World Health Organization, the American Red Cross, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The word drowning should instead be reserved for "the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid," according to Emergency Medical News, rather than to any symptoms that pop up afterwards. "Drowning deaths do not occur due to unexpected deterioration days or weeks later with no preceding symptoms. The lungs and heart or their passages do not fill up with water, and water does not need to be pumped out of the lungs."

Ingesting water while swimming can lead to complications later on, but they are not nearly as scary as viral articles make them out to be. Pneumonitis sometimes occurs when water inhaled by children disrupts the lining of their lungs, causing inflammation and fluid buildup. It's rare for children to contract this condition, and when they do, parents have plenty of time to notice it before it reaches life-threatening levels. Symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and vomiting intensify over time rather than appearing suddenly in an otherwise healthy child.

Of course, it's never a bad idea to take your kid to the emergency room following any type of drowning incident. Here is more specific advice from Emergency Medical News:

Using an experience familiar to almost everyone, we recommend that care be sought if symptoms seem any worse than the experience of a drink going down the wrong pipe at the dinner table or severe coughing that does not resolve in minutes. Usually these patients can be observed for four to six hours in an emergency department and be released if normal. More significant symptoms would be persistent cough, foam at the mouth or nose, confusion, or abnormal behavior, all of which warrant attention.

[h/t KidNurse]