Dispelling the Myths of dry and secondary drowning.

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We have recently seen some stories regarding dry or secondary drowning on social media sites that understandably may make you hesitant about taking your baby swimming if you do not know all the facts so here we are setting the record straight.

There are three types of drowning. Dry, Wet and Secondary.

Many people if not all have experienced “something going down the wrong way”, during drinking. When this happens the person coughs and splutter then still feeling a tickle in their throat they have a drink of water or two until the discomfort has gone. In the throat we have the food pipe (oesophagus) and the wind pipe (trachea) in between is a flap (epiglottis). This flap closes when we swallow to protect water entering the lungs.

Dry drowning.

If a person gets into difficulty in the water, they may have some water go down the throat. The flap or epiglottis as described above will snap shut in a conscious person, protecting the lungs from large amounts of water, however as it shuts it may catch a small amount of water. This normally doesn’t have much effect as our lungs need to be moist to work, this is why in cold weather we can see our breath (water vapour). Breathing in water can cause vocal chords to spasm and close up, this shuts off his airways, making it hard to breathe – symptoms of dry drowning generally happen immediately after the incident.

Secondary drowning.

If the small amount of water is dirty e.g. From a lake or river rather than a swimming pool where the water is treated and filtered continuously. This can cause a chest infection (pneumonia) up to 72 hours after the incident, if in doubt always seek medical attention at an A & E department.

Wet drowning

This occurs when the casualty becomes unconscious and the flap (epiglottis) relaxes and the lungs fill with water. Only resuscitation can assist in this case.

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To summarise:-

The body has protective measures in place to prevent water entering the lungs, if a small amount of clean water does enter the lungs this will have little effect as the lungs need to be moist to work. If the water is dirty this may cause an infection however this is rare. If any signs of breathing difficulties are displayed up to 72 hours (3 days) after an incident in water then urgent medical attention must be sought.

Symptoms to look for:

Dry drowning and secondary drowning have the same symptoms. They include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling extremely tired
  • Sudden changes in behaviour

In most cases symptoms will improve by themselves but it is worth getting checked out if you are concerned as the symptoms can be treated easily with oxygen or ventilation in a hospital.

We hope this helps to reassure you that although dry and secondary drowning DOES exist (although these are not official terms) it is a very rare phenomenon and only accounts for around 1% of all drowning cases.

Our pools are regularly filtered and checked which removes the risk of secondary drowning and all our teachers are first aid trained (lifeguards) but have never (and never expect to) treat a case of dry drowning.

Thank you to George Tarte of Aquatic Rescue Training for the in-depth and reassuring information and thanks to you for reading, please feel free to comment if you have found this post useful.

Fiona Munt-Whittle

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