What Is "Dry Drowning" And How To Prevent It

Before we attempt to understand "dry drowning" and the controversy around the terminology, it would help to remember exactly what "drowning" refers to. 

Often mistaken to be synonymous with death, drowning actually refers to a process. "The process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid" is the accepted definition. There is no accepted medical definition for "dry drowning." In turn, many have been left confused after noticing the term in media reports about children who died (or had almost died) from it.

As per most media reports, "dry drowning" has been used to describe the spasm in the airway after the accidental inhalation of fluids. On the other hand, "secondary drowning" has been used to describe complications that arise long after a person has left the pool, typically due to excess fluid in their lungs.

However, experts have disagreed with categorizing drowning as "wet" or "dry" and have also discouraged adding adjectives such as active, passive and secondary to describe drowning. They state that fatal drowning incidents are often misreported as being "dry/secondary drowning" in the news when they are actually referring to different parts of the drowning process. They may also be mis-attributed to other problems such as laryngospasm (spasm of vocal cords), chemical pneumonitis (inflammation of the lung due to irritants) or spontaneous pneumothorax (abnormal accumulation of air between the lungs and chest cavity). 

Here are a few ways you can stay safe, watch out for warning signs and take preventative measures against drowning: 

1. Ensure supervision

It is highly recommended to have the presence of a lifeguard while going for a swim. Especially when children are involved, touch supervision is encouraged so that aspiration is quickly noticed. "Watch your kids. If you’re watching them and they have an aspiration event, you will see it and you will get them the medical attention they need," wrote Dr. Katherine Hensley, a pediatrician from The Children's Clinic in Texas.

2. Know the warning signs

In the case that a person experiences submersion and aspiration, keep an eye out for warning signs after they are removed from the water body. According to a 2017 article written by a group of emergency treatment experts, chest pain is one of the major signs that medical attention is needed. When seeing a health professional, this is one of the aspects that will be assessed apart from signs of vomiting and loss of consciousness.

Other warning signs, they add, are "submersion or immersion followed by difficulty breathing, excessive coughing, foam in the mouth, and not acting normally."

3. Avoid intoxication

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites alcohol consumption as a frequent factor in adolescent and adult drowning incidents.

Teach young people, especially teenagers who are prone to risk-taking behavior, about the dangers of going swimming when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Not only are they less capable of being safe, they are also less likely to call for help. "It’s not like Baywatch, where they show somebody waving furiously," explained Roger Sweeney, a water safety expert from Ireland. "Drownings happen silently and quickly."

4. Lessons and safety accessories

The minimal requirement of swimming lessons should not be compromised. Install isolation fencing in outdoor pools and wear life jackets during water activities such as boating. Learn how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) as it could save someone in a moment when immediate medical attention is not available.