“Dry drowning” is an outdated term to describe a complication following a drowning incident. Occasionally, people who have inhaled water or another liquid experience spasms in their larynx (voice box). They may have difficulty breathing and will need emergency medical assistance.

Healthcare professionals often use the term “post-immersion syndrome” instead. However, some people continue to use dry drowning to describe cases in which a person survives drowning but later develops breathing problems as the muscles around the larynx spasm and block the airways.

This article will define what dry drowning is and the symptoms to watch out for. It will also look at treatment and prevention tips.

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According to a 2017 article, dry drowning once referred to cases in which no water was present in the lungs of those who had drowned. However, it is not a medically accepted term.

In the past, doctors used the terms wet drowning and dry drowning before the medical community had the necessary diagnostic tools to examine breathing.

Once they learned that drowning results from a lack of oxygen and not the volume of water in the lungs, the term “drowning” replaced both wet and dry drowning.

Despite not being a medically accurate term, some researchers and doctors may still occasionally say dry drowning to refer to cases in which water, or another liquid, causes the voice box and vocal folds to spasm. This is called laryngospasm and can occur in at least 20% of people who have drowned.

When the voice box spasms, the vocal folds close, and breathing becomes difficult. Liquids may end up in places they should not go, such as the sinuses, and it can be difficult to get air into the lungs.

A severe spasm can reduce the airflow enough to be life threatening.

Typically, this happens after a person has come out of the water. They may start coughing and have difficulty taking in a breath in the hours following the drowning incident.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes drowning as a process of experiencing breathing difficulties or other respiratory problems after being submerged or immersed in liquid. They list the possible outcomes as:

  • death
  • drowning with ongoing health problems
  • drowning with no ongoing health problems

Drowning occurs when someone cannot breathe after going below the surface of water or another liquid.

When someone is drowning, lung damage and exposure to liquid can cause the major lung passageways to spasm, stopping airflow.

Ultimately, people who die from drowning do so because of a lack of oxygen. They may go into cardiac arrest or have too little oxygen in their blood to maintain brain function.

However, the WHO points out that many people survive drowning. They can either recover completely, shortly after the incident, or recover with ongoing medical problems.

People who have experienced nonfatal drowning should seek immediate medical care if they start coughing excessively and the feeling is worse than something going down the wrong pipe.

Other signs to look out for include:

In children

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that children between the ages of 1–4 years are most at risk of drowning.

According to the American Red Cross, a person should seek immediate medical help if a child develops the following symptoms after being rescued:

  • a cough
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing
  • excessive or prolonged coughing
  • hard or fast breathing

Parents or caregivers should watch closely for symptoms if a child sputters and coughs after being rescued and returns to their typical self quickly. They should contact a doctor if a child experiences the following within 2–3 hours:

  • coughing
  • sleepiness
  • confusion
  • breathing difficulties

If a child develops any symptoms after 8 hours, the parent or caregiver should contact a doctor.

If a person seems to lack oxygen or may have drowned, anyone trained should immediately begin CPR and get someone else to call for emergency help.

Once the person arrives at the emergency room, they will often undergo medical tests to examine their ability to breathe. Doctors will also check their vital signs, such as their heart rate, body temperature, and oxygen levels.

If the healthcare professionals determine vital signs are in safe ranges, they will usually monitor the person for between 4–6 hours. Depending on whether the person’s condition improves, doctors will discharge them or admit them to the hospital for longer-term monitoring and care.

There are ways to help prevent drowning. Most involve practicing water safety around children, according to the CDC.

Some key tips include:

  • supervise children closely in or near any amount of water
  • take swimming lessons and teach children to swim from a young age
  • wear life jackets
  • fence off any swimming pools or water features
  • learn CPR
  • never swim alone
  • swim in areas where a lifeguard is on duty

The following are myths about drowning.

Myth: Drowning occurs as a result of water in the lungs

Typically, very little water enters the lungs during the drowning process.

A 2017 article states that during the drowning process, fewer than 2 milliliters per kilogram of body weight typically enters the lungs.

The major concern is a lack of oxygen to the brain, depending on how long a person remains under the water.

If rescue happens before a person’s brain runs out of oxygen, the water can either become absorbed into the lungs and not lead to any problems, or it can lead to excessive coughing.

The coughing will ease or worsen within a few hours. If the coughing worsens, a person should contact a healthcare professional.

Myth: A person can “near drown”

In the past, people used the term “near drowning” to describe those who had survived drowning incidents. However, to be clear about whether someone has survived drowning, the medically accurate terms are fatal and nonfatal drowning.

Another medically inaccurate term includes “secondary drowning” or “delayed drowning.” Healthcare professionals used this term before they understood how drowning causes injury. It refers to those who experience a worsening of symptoms after water exposure.

Dry drowning is an outdated and widely misused term. Some have used it to describe the breathing problems that occur when liquid causes the voice box to spasm.

A person should seek medical help if they or a child develops the following after water exposure:

  • fatigue or sleepiness
  • confusion
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • hard or fast breathing

People should always practice water safety and closely supervise children in pools or hot tubs, at beaches, and by other bodies of water.