Being alert for symptoms of "dry drowning"

Published: Apr. 25, 2018 at 7:00 PM CDT
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Warmer temps are perfect for kids to be in the water. One concern which could arise – and is back in the news - is what's called "dry drowning."

"It's where you inhale through your mouth or your nose some water and you actually have a spasm in your throat," Penny Hanusa, a registered nurse at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, said to WEAU 13 News on Wednesday.

Hanusa recalls a case which was brought into HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital's emergency room.

"They brought the child into us and we observed the child for quite a few hours after the incident and wound up not seeing any of the signs or symptoms,” she said. "We were lucky with this one where they never did develop any of those."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state about ten people die every day from unintentional drowning – of these, two will be children 14 or younger. The CDC also states drowning is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death for people of all ages and second-leading cause of injury death for those ages 1 to 14

Paul Horvath, a physician practicing in emergency medicine for Mayo Clinic Health System, said a better term for what’s referred to as “dry drowning” is better described as aspiration pneumonia.

“What happens when anybody gets fluid down into their lungs, it actually disrupts the normal mechanisms of breathing,” Dr. Horvath said to WEAU 13 News on Wednesday. “There's other the chemical in the lungs called surfactant that allows the lungs to inflate and deflate without having to use a whole lot of energy. When that surfactant gets washed out, segments of the lungs actually collapse, and then we're at risk for getting a secondary infection in that area.”

The concept of "dry drowning" has recently come back to light after a report of a Florida toddler inhaled swimming pool water, and then showed symptoms a few days later – including coughing, trouble breathing and turning blue. The toddler was treated and has recovered.

Dr. Horvath said an occurrence is not restricted to children – or even, taking a swim.

"I actually see it more commonly in the elderly, who have trouble swallowing in their swallowing mechanisms just don't work well and they end up aspirating,” he said. “They end up getting food, getting fluid, getting saliva down into their lungs. Surely, it can happen in kids, but I tend to see it more commonly in the elderly as well."

It doesn't have to be a lake or a pool for the symptoms of dry drowning to occur. Both Hanusa and Dr. Horvath said the symptoms could come from something as simple as drinking water too fast, but that's not to say drinking water is problematic.

"It's the person who continues to cough or continues to have breathing problems for a protracted period of time. Those are the ones we worry about."

Dry Drowning

Click here for more information on water safety for infants and toddlers from Mayo Clinic Health System.