Medically reviewed by Michael P. Boniface, M.D.
Last summer, there were many reports in the news and on social media about “dry drowning” – where individuals, particularly children, drowned days or weeks after swimming.
While devastating to the families and communities affected, Dr. Michael Boniface, an emergency medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, says dry drowning is a misnomer.
“Drowning does not happen days to a week after being in water. There are no medically accepted conditions known as ‘near-drowning,’ ‘dry drowning’ and ‘secondary drowning,’” says Dr. Boniface, highlighting a recent report from the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Watch: Dr. Michael Boniface discusses drowning.Journalists: Broadcast-quality sound bites with Dr. Boniface are in the downloads.
Drowning remains a leading cause of unintentional death for people of all ages – especially for children under 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, there are 3,500 fatalities annually from drowning – or about ten people a day who die from drowning, says Dr. Boniface.
“Drowning occurs when you can’t get oxygen into your lungs because you are in or below water," says Dr. Boniface, noting there are two primary causes for drowning.
"When people experience drowning events, typically one of two things occur. There will be reflexes of panic, agitation and air hunger. And, when you can’t avoid taking a breath under water, fluid will rush into the lungs. This is what we see in about half of the cases,” he says.
The other type of drowning occurs when the voice box closes off. Known as a laryngospasm, “it’s a reflex that happens to prevent fluid from getting into the lungs. This could happen if are below water, holding your breath to the point where you pass out.”
He notes that swallowing water while in the ocean or in the pool is not drowning. “Drowning is when you can’t get oxygen into your lungs. Some people misassociate this with swallowing water when you’re in the ocean or in the pool, which results in water going into the stomach. Although this can happen concurrently with water going into your lungs, that in itself does not truly represent a drowning event,” he explains.
Dr. Boniface says that when kids are in a pool, for example, and they start coughing or spitting out water, it’s likely because they have taken a lot of water into their stomach and some has gotten into their lungs. “But the body is smart. It will try to get that fluid by itself. And the cough is the body’s natural defense mechanism to do that,” he says. “In many cases, when there is a small amount of water aspirated into the lungs, coughing will allow it to be cleared.”
If the episode lingers or the person seems to be in distress, he advises calling for medical assistance. “If symptoms of respiratory dysfunction, such as prolonged cough or trouble breathing develop — whether 30 minutes after you’ve been in the water or a week — always seek medical attention.”
The best prevention
Dr. Boniface encourages everyone to know the risks for, and symptoms of, drowning, and to always keep a watchful eye on children when they are in or around water.
“The best thing we can do is to be aware and prevent drowning. And this means being diligent with close, constant adult supervision that is not distracted by cooking, cleaning, reading or talking on a cellphone. It means somebody watching the water at all times.”
Dr. Boniface reminds that small children don’t need a large volume of water for drowning to occur. Hot tubs and bathtubs — even buckets of water — could represent risks for infants or toddlers, he says.