Dry Drowning

mom and child in the pool

Stories of dry drowning are frightening accounts of children who seemed fine at first but then became dangerously ill hours after leaving the water. But although the topic may make headlines every summer, dry drowning doesn’t happen often. And luckily, it can usually be prevented by taking the proper precautions.

What is dry drowning?

Drowning occurs when someone is submerged underwater long enough to not breathe or get oxygen into their lungs. In most cases, drowning is caused by inhaling a rush of water during an involuntary gasp for air.

Dry drowning is a different type of health challenge that mainly affects children. It can also be called secondary drowning. However, neither description is used in the medical field, according to Jeremy Skotko, MD.

“Dry drowning and secondary drowning are not actual medical terms. Dry drowning describes a submersion event where you go underwater and your body has a reflex called a laryngeal spasm,” says Dr. Skotko, an emergency room doctor with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “The action closes your airway to prevent water from getting into your lungs. If this happens for a long enough time, it prevents oxygen from entering your lungs and then going to your brain and the rest of your body.”

Secondary drowning is a submersion event that occurs when you inhale a small amount of water and your lungs become irritated, which can cause lung damage and difficulty breathing.

Signs and symptoms

Although the idea of delayed drowning can be terrifying to a parent, dry drowning and secondary drowning are very rare. And the signs are recognizable if you know what to watch for, says Dr. Skotko.

“If you have an event where you notice someone is underwater and they look ok when they get out of the water, the likelihood is that they’re going to be ok,” he explains. “The vast majority of the time, you’re going to notice a problem right after the event.”

Dr. Skotko recommends “extra vigilance” for about 24 hours after a child has a submersion event that causes respiratory distress. “Call the doctor if someone is having trouble breathing or persistently coughing. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he says.

Warning signs that indicate you should seek medical attention include:


Encouraging good water safety habits is one of the best ways to prevent a tragic accident. “Prevention is key,” says Dr. Skotko. “It’s summertime, and kids are going to get in the water. You want to make sure everyone’s safe.”

Safety precautions include:

Find a doctor

We know seconds count in an emergency. Roper St. Francis Healthcare has six full-service emergency rooms located in Charleston and throughout the Lowcountry so our emergency care team is never far away when you need them. To find a pediatrician that can help you navigate the everyday health challenges parenthood brings regardless of the season, call (843) 402-CARE or visit Find A Doctor.