What Is Dry Drowning?

Dry drowning is a dangerous situation that occurs when water causes the air passages to close. It can cause intense coughing, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, or death.

What Is Dry Drowning?

Dry drowning is a type of drowning in which the lungs of a drowning victim don't have water in them.

Sometimes, dry drowning leads to death, and according to Unity Point Health, it's identified in approximately 10% to 20% of those autopsied after drowning.

"The term 'dry drowning' refers to an acute lung injury caused by water aspiration that would develop over minutes to hours after exposure and could progress to respiratory failure," says Stephen Robert, MD, associate director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Children’s Hospital.

What Is Drowning?


Drowning can occur when water is inhaled during submersion (being beneath the surface of the water) or immersion (having the face immersed in liquid).

Drowning is respiratory impairment (difficulty breathing) that develops due to being submerged or immersed in liquid.

Dry Drowning
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Types of Drowning

Drowning is commonly described as “wet drowning,” “dry drowning,” and “near-drowning,” none of which are considered medical terms.

Drowning categories used by the American Heart Association include:

  • Fatal drowning: Dying because of drowning or from complications from drowning
  • Nonfatal drowning with injury: Surviving a drowning incident with some type of injury
  • Nonfatal drowning without injury: Surviving a drowning incident without a resulting injury

Dry vs, Wet Drowning

All drownings (dry or wet) occur in some type of liquid.

There is water in the lungs with wet drowning, and there isn't water in the lungs with dry drowning.

Near Drowning

Near drowning occurs when a person is unable to breathe due to being immersed or submerged in liquid and comes close to drowning.

Symptoms of Dry Drowning

The signs and symptoms of all types of drowning usually occur right away—it’s rare for symptoms to begin more than a few minutes after the event.

Symptoms of dry drowning include:

  • Low energy
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing and/or irregular, fast breathing
  • Trouble speaking
  • The appearance of the chest sinking in
  • Pale or bluish skin color
  • Diminished alertness or unusual behavior
  • Coughing that does not resolve within a few minutes

It’s important to seek medical attention right away, particularly if the symptoms worsen or don't subside quickly.

Causes

With any type of drowning, liquid submersion or immersion leads to a deficiency of air (and oxygen) reaching the body's organs. The cause of death in any type of drowning is a lack of oxygen to the brain; this occurs whether or not water fills the lungs.

When water irritates the airways, laryngospasm (a spasm of the vocal cords that prevents water and air from getting to the lungs) can occur. Dry drowning occurs due to laryngospasm.  

Dry Drowning in Adults

The most common places that adults drown are rivers, lakes, or the ocean.

In adults, the risk of drowning increases with:

  • Panicking when swimming
  • Alcohol or drug use before or while in the water
  • Head trauma, such as from diving into shallow water
  • Dangerous situations, like swimming far from shore or in rough water

Medical emergencies while in water can increase the risk of drowning.

Examples include:

Causes of Dry Drowning in Infants

A common cause of dry drowning in infants is being unsupervised during the bath. Drowning can occur within minutes. 

Causes of Dry Drowning in Children

The most common cause of dry drowning in older children is swimming in a swimming pool. When a pool is not gated or fence properly, children may simply jump in.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 4 years, second only to congenital anomalies. It is one of the top three causes of unintentional death in people under 30 years old.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of dry drowning can involve medical tests. An O2 saturation test can be used to quickly assess how well a person is breathing. A chest X-Ray can identify water in the lungs.

An X-Ray can also identify pulmonary edema, which is excess fluid in the lungs that can develop due to lung damage.

Treatment

Anytime a person who's been exposed to water is coughing, has trouble breathing, or has pale or bluish skin, it’s important to get emergency medical attention. 

Sometimes a very small amount of water is present in the lungs. If a person is rescued before oxygen levels decline, the lungs can absorb small amounts of water without further complications.

If you have been submerged or immersed in water and have minimal symptoms (like coughing), your treatment will involve close observation for several hours.

Lack of oxygen can result in cardiac arrest and organ danage. Emergency treatment will involve starting cardiopulmonary resuscitation if breathing is impaired or if there are signs of low oxygen.

Prevention

When considering prevention measures for dry drowning, it's important to understand that it may take only a minute or two for death or long-term damage to occur. Constant supervision during the bath or anytime a child is swimming or near water of any depth is imperative.

Preventative measures include:

  • Always ensure that everyone in a boat wears a life jacket at all times.
  • Enroll your children in swim lessons instructed by trained professionals.
  • If your child is near a pool, make sure it is fenced and the gate is kept closed at all times.
  • Never allow children to play near the beach unless supervised by an adult.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Don't swim at a beach unless a lifeguard is present.
  • Do not walk on icy lakes.
  • Supervise toddlers and small children when they are near any type of body of water, including spas, hot tubs, bathtubs, pools, ponds, and lakes.
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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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