Symptoms Of Dry Drowning In Children, Treatment And Prevention

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Dry drowning in kids is when a child falls into the water, inhales or swallows some water (water aspiration) by accident, and starts to experience breathing problems. This severe lung injury can cause the vocal cords to abruptly contract (laryngeal spasm) and lead to breathing difficulty (1). Dry drowning is the medical term but is considered a misnomer and is more commonly referred to as one of the post-immersion respiratory syndromes (2).

Although dry drowning is considered a rare event, it can cause fatal respiratory discomfort symptoms right after inhalation or swallowing the water (2) (3).

Read on to know more about dry drawing in kids, including their symptoms, treatments, and preventive measures.

Dry Drowning Vs. Secondary Drowning

The term secondary drowning is often incorrectly used interchangeably with dry drowning. While both dry drowning and secondary drowning occur during a near-drowning incident, dry drowning is when a person gulps or inhales water, but that water doesn’t enter the lungs. Instead, the water triggers a muscle spasm in the airway later, causing breathing difficulty (4).

In contrast, in secondary or delayed drowning, the water enters the lungs and builds up to cause pulmonary edema, a complication that makes breathing difficult (5).

Generally, dry drowning symptoms appear immediately, whereas secondary drowning symptoms manifest within 24 hours after the incident (3). Although dry drowning and secondary drowning are rare and only account for one to two percent of all drowning incidents, they could turn fatal if not treated on time (5).

Signs And Symptoms Of Dry Drowning In Children

Dry drowning symptoms appear immediately after exposure to water. Here are a few of the most common ones that you should watch out for (6).

  • Intense coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain when breathing
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as abdominal pain
  • Unusual behavior, such as lack of alertness and confusion
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Development of pale or bluish-tinged skin
  • Agitation and inability to speak clearly

Take your child to the nearest emergency room if you suspect dry drowning or if they exhibit any of the above symptoms after falling into the water. If left untreated, dry drowning could lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia.

Note: Children between one and four years have the highest drowning rate, followed by children aged between five and nine years (7). Spotting dry drowning in such young children is usually tricky as they can’t communicate effectively, thus raising the chances of the condition going unnoticed. Hence, it’s best to stay alert and never leave your child unsupervised near a water body.

Treatment For Dry Drowning

Dry drowning manifests respiratory distress symptoms almost immediately. In most cases, however, these symptoms are mild and improve without intervention over time. Yet parents should monitor their child for 24 hours after a near-drowning accident. If your child coughs persistently for more than 20 to 30 minutes or breathes too fast, contact your local emergency room immediately (2).

While the medical care team is on its way, try to keep the child calm so that their airway muscles relax and the laryngospasm subsides. Then, when the medics arrive, let them monitor the child and start the treatment accordingly. For instance, if the child passes out due to a shortage of oxygen, the medics may perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Once the child regains consciousness and becomes slightly stable, they may be transported to the hospital for further examination and monitoring. The doctor will re-examine the child at the hospital and order tests, such as a chest X-ray or oxygen saturation test, to rule out other conditions, such as pulmonary pneumonia.

Prevention Of Dry Drowning

Following water safety measures is the best way to prevent water accidents, such as dry drowning in children (8) (9).

  1. Never leave your child unattended near water. Children under four years of age are at the highest risk of drowning. So, whether it’s a bathtub, swimming pool, or beach, never leave them unsupervised.
  2. Stay at an arm’s distance from the child while they are swimming. Use different safety equipment, such as life jackets, floaties, and water wings, to ensure maximum safety.
  3. Empty wading pools, buckets, and bathtub after use and keep your bathroom and toilets locked. These precautions are vital as young children can drown in even one inch of water.
  4. Secure your at-home pool with a non-climbable fence on all sides. Ensure the fence is at least four feet high and has safety features, such as self-closing doors with latches.
  5. Ensure your child wears a lifejacket while doing any activities in water, such as swimming or boating. This is a vital safety precaution for young children and inexperienced swimmers who are at a high risk of drowning.
  6. Learn swimming and teach your child as well. Additionally, teach them to swim within the designated swimming areas to stay safe. Inform them about the ropes used to divide the pool as per water depth, and strictly instruct them which areas they can swim in. Finally, learn CPR and the primary water rescue techniques so that you are prepared in emergencies.
  7. Ensure your child understands the need to stay away from the pool drain. Teach them that their hair, bathing suit, and even limbs could get stuck in broken or faulty drains and lead to drowning or adverse injuries. It’s a highly likely occurrence if the pool drain isn’t covered.

Besides these, do not swim or play with your child near the ocean without a lifeguard.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What do I do if my child breathes in water?

If your child has inhaled some water, check for signs of breathing problems (10). If they do not show any signs of troubled breathing, it is advised that you observe their symptoms and behavior over the next two to three days and talk to the doctor if you notice anything alarming.

2. What happens if you don’t treat dry drowning?

If left untreated, dry drowning might lead to fluid accumulation in the lungs and serious repercussions.

Dry drowning is a water accident that requires immediate medical assistance. When a child receives prompt treatment, they may recover without any complications. However, if the treatment is delayed, the implications can be life-threatening. Thus, follow the water safety measures diligently to ensure your child is safe while around water.

Key Pointers

  • Dry drowning causes children to experience breathing difficulty from accidental water ingestion.
  • It differs from secondary drowning in their progression and appearance of the symptoms.
  • Dry drowning is characterized by severe coughing, chest pain, breathing difficulty, and obliviousness.
  • Treatment varies depending upon the severity of the symptoms and includes CPR and monitoring.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

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Dr. Dur Afshar Agha

Dr. Dur Afshar Agha is a consultant pediatrician with decades of experience in various medical facilities both in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. She has headed the Department of Preventive Pediatrics at the prestigious, Children’s Hospital and Institute of Child Health in Pakistan and is a life member of the Pakistan Paediatric Association. She has also completed her Post Graduate Program... more

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