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Health & Safety

Dry Drowning: What Parents Need to Know

Drowning after getting out of the water? How to recognize the risks

Most parents know to be "right there" when kids are in the water—no more than an arm's length away for kids who aren't strong swimmers. What many parents don't realize is that if your kid breathes water into her lungs—even if she's under the water just for a second or two—there are dangerous risks that can occur up to 24 hours later. Here's how to prevent "dry" or "secondary" drowning:

Understand what it is. When a person inhales water into the lungs, it can cause inflammation, making it difficult to breathe, says Mercedes M. Blackstone, M.D., associate director of medical education in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. This reaction can occur up to 24 hours later and, rarely, can progress to the point where a person can't breathe at all.

Know the symptoms. “Watch for shortness of breath, coughing or grunting, using extra chest and abdominal muscles to breathe, or appearing pale or even bluish,” says Dr. Blackstone. “Children who are not getting enough oxygen may also become lethargic or confused.” Keep in mind that symptoms can begin hours later—even after your child seemed fine earlier. 

Get help. If you think your child may have inhaled water and you notice any of the above symptoms, call your doctor right away. And if your child seems to be having any trouble breathing, call 911 and get to the ER immediately, adds Dr. Blackstone.  

Reduce the risks. To keep kids safe, teach them how to swim and keep them within arm's reach in the water until they are strong swimmers, says Kevin G. Rodgers, M.D., president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine and professor of clinical emergency medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Home pools should always be surrounded by a locked fence and kiddie pools should be emptied after each use—since children can drown in even a small amount of water.