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Everything You (Hopefully Never) Need to Know About ‘Dry Drowning’

The terrifying condition involves ‘drowning’ 24 hours AFTER getting out of the pool

Last month, Florida mother Lacey Grace took to Facebook to report that her four-year-old daughter had been hospitalized with what many believe is a case of “dry drowning.” The details chronicled within the post are both relatable and terrifying [sic throughout]:

“Elianna was playing in the pool with a ‘pool noodle’ on Saturday, and as many, many children do every day, she was blowing in one end and blowing water out of the other. By 100-percent freak accident, Elianna put her mouth to blow out at the same time someone blew in the other end, causing the water to shoot directly down her throat. She threw up immediately, but didn’t really have any other notable things happen. 30 minutes after the ‘accident,’ she was totally fine — normal, playing, eating, etc. The next day even, she was fine. Come Monday, she developed a fever. Kids get fevers; this is normal. I didn’t think much. Tuesday, she slept most of the day but still overall looked fine. Sent her to school Wednesday, and got a call in the afternoon that her fever was back.”

From there, Elianna was taken to urgent care, where things took a turn for the worse [again, sic throughout]:

“We were there for about 10 minutes when the doctor said to get her to the nearest ER as soon as possible. Her heart rate was crazy high, her oxygen was low and her skin was turning purple, which suggested chemical infection.”

“We went to the nearest ER, where they did a chest X-ray that showed inflammation and infection caused by pool chemicals. Two hours later, they transferred her by ambulance to an even larger hospital so they could monitor her around the clock and have pediatric specialists keep an eye on her. She began treatment in the ambulance on the way over.”

Fortunately, Elianna has since recovered, but the now-viral Facebook post recounting her supposed battle with “dry drowning” has stirred considerable interest in the mysterious illness. It’s also, of course, raised a bunch of questions — the biggest ones also being the most obvious ones. Namely: How does “dry drowning” happen? Should I be worried that this might happen to my kid? And if it does, what can I do?

Here are at least a few answers…

How do you even ‘drown’ from something that’s ‘dry’?

First, it should be noted that there’s a difference between “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning.” The latter happens when water enters the lungs (which is more accurately what happened to Elianna), gradually disrupting the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, resulting in difficulty breathing days after the incident.

“Dry drowning,” on the other hand, is a non-medical term that refers to spasms of the vocal cords and airways — which prevent air from entering the lungs — after ingesting a small amount of water (usually from a pool or the ocean). “We think this occurs because the body is designed to prevent water from entering the trachea (the primary airway leading to the lungs),” explains pediatrician Ashanti Woods. “Water entering the lungs can lead to chemical injury [as a result of ingesting pool chemicals, which is what happened to Elianna] and difficulty breathing. The body is therefore trying to prevent that from happening.”

The most frightening aspect of “dry drowning” is that symptoms can occur up to 24 hours after the water-ingesting incident, meaning victims essentially “drown” long after they get out of the water. (Why this happens isn’t abundantly clear, but it has to do with the fact that water is lingering in the airways.) As such, medical experts recommend keeping an eye on kids for 24 hours after any kind of near-drowning event — children are more often victims of “dry drowning,” because they have trouble expressing the gradual changes to their body.

What are the symptoms?

In short, difficulty breathing and coughing. “This is very similar to what happens when someone is having a severe asthma attack or allergic reaction,” Woods says. “They experience a tightening of the airway muscles.” He adds, “Children may exhibit nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath or a severe decrease in energy.” Elianna also experienced a fever, which was likely a side effect of aspiration pneumonia, an infection of the lungs that’s associated with 10 percent of near-drowning events, according to some studies.

How common is this?

Both “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning” are extremely rare: Pediatrician James Orlowski tells WebMD that they make up only one or two percent of all drownings. (Non-boating-related drownings occur about 3,500 times per year in the U.S., meaning “dry drowning” might affect approximately 35 people annually.)

That said, it can be fatal. Nearly a year ago, a four-year-old boy from Texas died from “dry drowning” one week after swimming on a family vacation — the boy’s story actually encouraged Grace to bring Elianna to urgent care, according to her Facebook post [sic, per usual]: “I kept replaying that pool scene in my head and remembered reading a story last year about a dad in Texas whose son passed away, because he went untreated after inhaling a bunch of pool water. I wasn’t going to let that be Elianna.”

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of “dry drowning” victims improve with breathing support, meaning dying as a result of the condition is unlikely. Depending on the severity of the incident, some are simply administered an oxygen mask for a certain period of time, whereas others may require a breathing tube or a ventilator.

Is ‘dry drowning’ preventable?

Yes, via helicopter parenting. At least that seems to be the general consensus. Woods thinks so, too. “Avoid this by closely supervising your child while he or she is playing in the water,” he emphasizes. “Also, watch their behavior, energy level and respiratory status after any water activity.”

Grace is even more vehement [sic]: “If your child inhales a bunch of water, and something seems off AT ALL, I encourage you to immediately get help. I wonder if I would have taken her Monday: Would she be better off?”

Or, more horrifying still: “I [also] wonder if I waited longer what would have happened.”