8 Truths About Drowning and ‘Dry Drowning’ Revealed

July 9, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Timothy W. Watkins, M.D. contributes to topics such as Pediatrics.

By Brianna McCabe

As if drowning dangers aren’t terrifying enough, parents now have compounded anxieties to cope with after recent reports of ‘dry drowning’ have shown individuals—mostly children—appearing to drown days or weeks after water exposure.

Timothy Watkins, M.D., a board certified pediatrician, explains the differences between drowning and ‘dry drowning’ and how to ensure your child’s safety whether on land or sea:

  1. Drowning occurs when water enters the lungs from being in or below the water. It typically occurs in one of the two following manners:
  • A person will involuntarily take a breath and bring water into his or her airway—which ultimately closes it. With a lack of oxygen, a person becomes unconscious and water eventually fills the lungs.
  • A person will experience a laryngospasm, where the vocal chords spasm and seal that pathway. This can be seen in many drowning instances, especially when someone is trying to hold his or her breath underwater.
  1. ‘Dry drowning’ isn’t technically drowning. Instead, it’s a type of submersion injury in which water enters the larynx, but never actually enters the lungs. “In fact, it’s not even an official diagnosis,” Dr. Watkins adds. According to the pediatrician, it is a non-medical (or “slang”) term for this symptom of respiratory distress that occurs shortly after water enters the body through the nose or mouth.
  1. A person can drown in less than 60 seconds. It has been reported that it only takes 20 seconds for a child to drown and roughly 40 seconds for an adult—and in some cases, it can take as little as a ½ cup of water to enter the lungs for the phenomenon to occur.
  1. Swallowing water is not drowning. “Sometimes you will notice that someone will exit a pool or the ocean and begin coughing and spitting out water,” he says. “It is likely that this person has allowed water to enter their stomach—and perhaps some has reached the lungs, too.” In many cases, coughing will allow the body to remove the liquid.
  1. If coughing persists after 20-30 minutes, seek medical attention. If you notice that someone is coughing, vomiting, has trouble breathing, complains of tightness in the chest, has difficulty speaking and/or experiences any changes in levels of consciousness after being in the water, call 9-1-1. “A laryngospasm (or ‘dry drowning’) can progress rapidly,” he warns.
  1. If an individual appears to be breathing normally after exiting a body of water, you do not need to worry. Rest assured that incidents of ‘dry drowning’—though potentially life threatening—are rare, says Dr. Watkins. “Although ‘dry drowning’ has people’s attention, the real danger to children is actual drowning,” he warns. Drowning is the leading cause of death from unintentional injury for children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  1. Drowning is a real concern. Every day, the CDC estimates that ten people die from unintentional drowning—and of those, two are children aged 14 or younger. “You should be especially cautious with toddlers as they don’t yell, splash or give any ‘signs’ of distress—and can sink fast,” he warns. “And small children can slip and fall into a pool, become unconscious and drown just as easily, too.”
  1. There are methods of prevention. To enjoy a more pleasant and safe water experience, Dr. Watkins recommends the following tips for parents:
  • Registering children for age-appropriate swimming lessons
  • Isolating pools with barriers, such as fences and gates, to prevent falls or unsupervised entrances
  • Supervising of all children around water and being within an arm’s length
  • Using life jackets or life vests
  • Learning CPR

Dr. Watkins rotates between our pediatric practices in Hackensack and Wyckoff. He is a physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, a network of more than 1,000 physicians and advanced providers at over 300 practices throughout New Jersey. Our care network can help you better manage your health. Visit HMHMedicalGroup.org to find a practice near you.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

Drowning Facts
Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts
Water Safety Information