Do you know what is Dry or Secondary Drowning?

I find myself, yet again, writing about dry or secondary drowning as I read that another toddler has just tragically died from what can be a silent killer.  And it is summer again which means lots of children messing about in water and while I certainly don’t want to be an alarmist I do want parents and child carers to understand the importance of always getting a child checked out if he has even a minor near drowning episode.  Dry drowning can kill hours after someone has been submersed in water, and sometimes it is hard to recognise the symptoms.The little boy in America who prompted me to post this article complained after he had been swimming and he complained of a sore stomach and had diarrhoea and vomiting and his parents mistook the symptoms for a stomach bug. When the doctors told his parents that he had suffered from dry drowning caused by breathing in water they were shocked.

It reminded me of another death last year of a ten-year-old boy. He had been swimming and had a near drowning episode but recovered and then walked home with his mother and he seemed ok.

“I’ve never knew a child could walk around, talk, speak and their lungs be filled with water. Johnny must have some water in his lungs while he was swimming in his local pool but he he didn’t show any signs of respiratory distress except he had an accident in the pool and “soiled himself”, said the mother.

She said that she bathed him and he told her he felt sleepy. When she went to check on him later she saw his face was covered in a “spongy white material”. He was rushed to hospital but it was too late.

So, what is dry or secondary drowning and how does it happen? It is a bit technical so stay with me.

If a child has inhaled (aspirated) even a small amount of water (as little as 2.5-30mls), it can trigger a reaction in the lungs which can be fatal, even 24hrs after the initial incident!

If enough water is inhaled then it can wash away the chemical (surfactant) which keeps part of the lungs (alveoli) open.  Without this surfactant, the lungs begin to collapse.  Then the body’s own fluids as well as those swallowed/inhaled, can seep into the lungs.  This prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from being exchanged and effectively cause the patient to drown.  This can occur much later than the initial incident and without any more fluid being inhaled.

This is called dry drowning or secondary drowning.

The symptoms include:


Difficulty in breathing

Pain when breathing (especially when taking deep breaths)


Possible wheezing

Symptoms are sometimes exacerbated when lying flat.

If you or your child has an incident in the water get yourself or the child checked out immediately by accident and emergency.  However mild it is – better always to be safe.

And most important get yourself booked into a first aid a course and learn how to perform CPR it could really make the difference between life and death. Safe Training run a very good paediatric first aid course.  (



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