What is ‘Dry Drowning’?

Many parents have heard the term ‘dry drowning’ – but how does it happen and what do parents need to know to keep their children safe? Michael McHugh, M.D., explains what happens during a submersion injury and what to look for.

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CLEVELAND – Many parents have heard the term ‘dry drowning’ – a phenomenon where a child’s airway begins to spasm after having taken in water while swimming, which can result in a drowning episode after having exited the water.

According to Michael McHugh, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, this event is known as a ‘submersion injury’ and while it can occur, it is very rare.

He said during any form of drowning, the problems begin when water washes away important chemicals in the lungs.

“All forms of water drowning, when into the lungs they wash out, the water washes out chemicals from the lungs that help to keep your air sacs open,” said Dr. McHugh.

Dr. McHugh said that our bodies are equipped with a defense mechanism that keeps water from getting into our airways.

It’s the same reflex that causes us to cough when we accidentally get water down ‘the wrong pipe.’

“You have so many protective reflexes – that’s why you cough and sputter as soon as it happens, said Dr. McHugh. “That reflex is a very prominent, strong reflex to keep water out of the lungs.”

What’s different during a drowning episode is that a person loses consciousness and as they use up all of their available oxygen, this reflex then relaxes, allowing the airways to open up and water to come in.

Dr. McHugh said the symptoms that accompany a submersion injury would be difficult to miss. The main thing to look out for is if a child is acting remarkably different than their usual self.

“They don’t breathe on their own; they don’t think; they don’t respond; sometimes have seizures as a result of the lack of oxygen, so it’s pretty dramatic and pretty abnormal,” said Dr. McHugh.

If a child accidentally swallows water or gets water up the nose, they should be able to walk and talk, follow commands, be oriented and know what is happening around them. If not, it’s time to seek immediate medical attention.

Dr. McHugh said the most important thing that parents can do is practice good water safety and supervision – never assume that someone else is watching the children and never underestimate how resourceful a child can be in trying to get into and investigate water.

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