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Dry Drowning Symptoms, Signs, Treatment & Prevention Tips Every Parent Should Know

It’s summer and that means more sun, sand, beach trips, pools, and playing in the water. While, this is usually great fun for everyone, sometimes bad things can happen.

Being prepared and proactive are keys for water safety. Drowning is easy enough to spot, diagnose and treat. But what about dry drowning or secondary drowning as its also called (although it’s not exactly the same thing)?

Do you know the symptoms of dry drowning? Can you spot the signs of dry drowning before its too late? Every parent should take the time to educate themselves on these and dry drowning prevention as well as treatments.

baby sitting with statoscope in hand

What Is Dry Drowning?

I had actually never even heard of dry drowning until I came across a tragic story a little while ago about little Frankie, a 4 year-old that passed away due to delayed drowning after a near-drowning experience at the beach.

He wasn’t even playing in deep water. A large wave came and swept him under for a brief moment before he was pulled out, but that was all it took.

Dry drowning happens within 1 hour after inhaling water. Signs of secondary drowning or delayed drowning can show up as late as 48 hours after water exposure.

Usually, the child seems just fine after the incident, at first. But as some time progresses, you will quickly notice that breathing becomes more and more difficult. The key to prevent this kind of tragedy is to be aware of what the symptoms look like.

It’s quite rare but it’s still worth knowing about in my opinion.

What Happens During Dry Drowning?

Basically, when someone is experiencing dry drowning, the water accidentally gets inhaled through the nose or mouth and irritates the vocal cords which respond by tightening.

When the child is unable to effectively cough out the water, the vocal cords constrict in an attempt to limit water from entering the lungs. This causes swelling and inflammation in the airways and lungs.

This eventually leads to the child being unable to breathe and essentially slowly losing their oxygen supply. That’s why it’s called “dry”, no water needs to actually enter the lungs for this to happen.

How Typical Is It? Should I be Scared?

Luckily, it doesn’t happen all that often. It is estimated that dry drowning makes up about 1-2% of all drowning accidents. In most cases, as long as it is quickly identified, it can be treated without major injury or death, which is why it’s so important to be able to quickly identify the signs.

What are the Symptoms & Signs Of Dry Drowning

 ⚫ difficulty breathing: shortness of breath, increased effort to breathe, rapid or shallow breathing

 ⚫ coughing: ongoing and persistent coughing leading to difficulty breathing

 ⚫ pain in chest

 ⚫ fever

 ⚫ changes in mood and energy levels

 ⚫ lethargy: usually tired, sleepiness,

 ⚫ irritable

 ⚫ vomiting

 ⚫ bluish lips/change in color from lack of oxygen

Dry drowning prevention for young boy in pool half submerged.

How to Treat Dry Drowning

If you suspect your child might be exhibiting symptoms of secondary drowning, seek medical attention immediately! Take them straight to the ER where the medical staff has the right equipment and expertise to deal with the situation.

Frankie was initially taken to his regular doctor’s office who misdiagnosed the issue as a stomach bug.

This won’t be something you can treat at home as your little one’s oxygen levels will need to be checked. Treatment will depend on how severe the incident was so it’s always best to get checked out.

They will likely require some scans and x-rays as well.

The best treatment of all is trying to be proactive and prevent accidents before they happen.


Rather than treatment, the focus should always be on trying to prevent dry drowning in the first place. Here are some water safety tips to follow to prevent dry drowning from even becoming an issue in the first place. This is true whether you’re at the beach, pool, or even the bathtub. Accidents can happen anywhere if we aren’t careful.

 ⚫ Always assign an adult to supervise children when they are playing near water

 ⚫ Always stay within arms-reach of your child when they are playing in the water

 ⚫ Children should use a life jacket or approved flotation device when they are around open bodies of water

 ⚫ Your child should never swim alone even if wearing a life jacket

 ⚫ Putting children in swim classes as early as possible is always a good idea

 ⚫ Review water safety rules with your children prior to each trip to the beach/pool

 ⚫ If you have a pool in your home, invest in pool gates to keep children out

 ⚫ When at the beach or pool, first identify where the lifeguards are located and if possible try to play near this area

 ⚫ If your child accidentally inhales water keep a close watch for at least 24 hours to monitor any changes


Water Safety is a Must

As mentioned, the best approach is always prevention. It’s important to always discuss water safety with our kids so they know what we expect and why we are telling them to do certain things like: wear a life jacket, not run on pool decks or horseplay in water like dunking.

In the majority of cases, dry drowning is treated and there aren’t any long-term impacts but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, in my opinion.

If you’re planning a beach trip with kids, I’ve got a great list of tips and even a printable checklist to make your trip smoother and keep everything safe.



Sunday 8th of September 2019

Every summer I used to worry.... now that they are older, my older one is taking lifesaving skills ....

Lynne Huysamen

Saturday 3rd of August 2019

Wow Cendu, I never heard of dry drowning before reading your article - how scary, especially since it can happen so quickly that you may never suspect a thing is wrong! I always make sure to supervise my kids very carefully when they are anywhere near water since they are still learning to swim but I would never have thought to look out for these symptoms. Thank you for making me aware.


Friday 2nd of August 2019

YES! I used to be a lifeguard a lifetime ago now and this was something we learned about then. Water safety is HUGE for all moms and dads out there. Please pay attention to your children! You are their best defense!


Friday 2nd of August 2019

I am the parent who is always afraid of this even though I know it doesn’t happen often it’s always in the back of my mind. Any time my kids go swimming I make sure to monitor them afterwards. It’s such a scary thing and I cannot imagine losing my kid to dry drowning. Thank you for this helpful information. You may have just saved a life!