What Parents Need to Know About Dry Drowning

Many parents understand the dangers that pools and other bodies of water pose to young children, especially those who are not strong swimmers. Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S., with nearly 10 fatal incidents each day – half of those involving children under age 14.

However, drowning is not always life-threatening. In the mildest cases, water enters the back of the throat and causes spasms in the airway – making breathing difficult. Most people can cough the water out without any problems. It becomes a cause for concern when someone does not stop coughing hours after exiting the water. This could indicate that they inhaled water.

When water enters the lungs, it can wash away a compound known as “surfactant” that helps keep the air sacs open so oxygen and carbon dioxide can be exchanged. If the surfactant is removed, the immune system will react, causing a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), or what is considered dry drowning.

What is Dry Drowning?

The term “dry drowning” arose after cases in which people died several days after inhaling water. Parents might be concerned if their child suddenly develops a cough a few days after swimming, but doctors say the process of dry drowning begins immediately after a person gets out of the water, not hours or days later.

If your child continues coughing for hours after getting out of the water, you should take them to the emergency room. They may have developed ARDS. It is a serious, life-threatening condition, but most people recover from it if treated promptly.

Symptoms of ARDS include:

  • Blue-tinted lips or nails from lack of oxygen
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating

If your doctor diagnoses your child with ARDS, they will give them an air mask or a breathing tube and ventilator to help get their breathing under control. They may also give them a feeding tube and medication to prevent bleeding. Most patients who survive ARDS have no long-lasting side effects, while others may experience:

  • Breathing problems – Many people with ARDS recover most of their lung function within several months to two years, while some may have trouble breathing for the rest of their lives.
  • Depression – Most ARDS survivors report going through a period of depression, which is treatable.
  • Memory problems – Low oxygen levels can cause memory loss and cognitive issues. In some cases, the severity of these problems diminishes over time.
  • Lethargy – Being on a ventilator can weaken muscles and make patients feel more tired than usual.

How Parents Can Prevent Dry Drowning

While drowning is terrifying to think about, it is easily preventable. Parents can keep their kids safe by:

  • Supervising children around water – Even a few inches of water are enough for a young child to drown. Being present without any distractions, like cell phones or alcohol, is the best line of defense. If your child is blue or not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR and then call 911.
  • Teaching children how to swim – The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swim lessons for all children older than four, but you can begin teaching your child to swim as early as their first birthday in parent-child swimming classes. Lessons will not prevent all drownings, but they will help children learn to be safe around water.
  • Using life jackets – Put your child in a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest when they are playing in or near the water, on a dock or in a boat.

Seek Medical Care for Your Child at St. Hope Foundation

Prompt medical attention is paramount in preventing dry drowning. If your child is displaying symptoms of ARDS, the pediatric team at St. Hope Foundation can administer the proper treatment to help them make a full recovery.

With two locations in the Houston area, we make it convenient for you to bring your child in for medical care. Call 713.778.1300 today to schedule an appointment or contact us online to learn about our services.

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