What’s the difference between dry drowning and secondary drowning?

Many of you may have seen the article going around Facebook recently about dry drowning. I had never heard of this before, and to be honest, I kind of thought it wasn’t a real thing. Usually when articles like that go viral, they send parents into an unnecessary panic. But after further investigation, it turns out that it is a real thing, and it is something we all need to be aware of.

The article going around was about a little boy named Johnny (Jon Jon) who sadly lost his life. According to the article, his mother knew he had taken in some water while swimming, but they got home, bathed, had a conversation, etc. Like most kids, he seemed overly tired after a long day of swimming and went quickly to bed. Later when his mom went to check on him, hours after swimming, he showed signs of drowning and didn’t make it.

After a quick check with snopes.com, a website covering urban legends, Internet rumors, e-mail forwards, and other stories of unknown or questionable origin, it looks like the story is mostly true. According to the site, while the article about Johnny’s death is factual, it contains one key element of confusion: Jon Jon Jackson was not technically a “dry drowning” victim, but rather a victim of “delayed drowning,” also termed “secondary drowning.” That distinction is important because numerous news articles that mentioned Johnny’s death and attributed it to dry drowning also supplied the information that dry drowning is responsible for ten to fifteen percent of all drowning deaths, thereby making it seem as though the tragic circumstances that swept away this one particular child loom as a huge risk to other children. This is not the case: The incidence of delayed drowning (which is what killed Johnny) is relatively uncommon; the incidence of true dry drowning is much greater. The latter is therefore what adult swimmers and the parents of juvenile swimmers need be more concerned about, but that form of drowning was not truly described in the article about Johnny’s death. 

The primary difference between dry drowning and secondary (or delayed) drowning is the presence or absence of water in the victim’s lungs. In Jon Jon Jackson’s case, he died with water in his lungs, so his death was more typical of “ordinary” drowning victims (i.e., water in the lungs prevented those organs from transporting oxygen into the bloodstream) even though he lived for a couple of hours after leaving the pool. By contrast, true dry drowning deaths do not involve the presence of liquid in the lungs. 

There are two primary theories as to what causes dry drowning, and it may well be that both are correct and that this form of death can be brought on in two different ways. The first theory is that a sudden rush of water into the throat causes the airway to snap shut, a condition known as a laryngospasm. During this event, although no water enters the lungs, no air enters either, so the victim dies of asphyxiation. The second explanation posits that the shock of a swimmer’s suddenly entering extremely cold water causes the heart to stop. 

Dry drowning accounts for ten to fifteen percent of all drowning deaths. Considering that approximately 4,000 people drown in the U.S. each year, that means dry drowning kills about 400 to 600 U.S. victims annually. It therefore poses a significant enough mortality risk that those who swim (or who supervise swimmers) should know what can be done to decrease the chance of its happening to them or their loved ones.

According to Lifesaving Society, signs of both secondary and dry drowning are:

  • Irritation or pain in the throat or chest
  • Coughing after taking a deep breath
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Dizziness/altered level of consciousness
  • High fever

Also, here is another informative article about what parents need to know about secondary drowning.

I don’t mean to cause a panic, but I thought this was important information.

Categories: Baby Mama