There was a media blitz on “dry drowning” last summer, just about this time, on a topic that is stirring up angst and worry among parents again this year. There’s good reason it makes parents nervous – drowning at baseline is a preventable tragedy that is terrifying to think on– and it’s the leading cause of accidental death to children between age 1 to 4 years, and the second leading cause of accidental death in those between 5 and 14 years. Everyone is scared of it for good reason. But “dry drowning” (a submersion injury that happens in a different way from what most of us think about when we think about children drowning) sends people through the roof, in part because of misunderstandings. And the language, and the misleading nature to it all.
What Is “Dry Drowning?”
The term in itself is a bit confusing (and a little controversial among doctors — most emergency room doctors and pediatricians don’t want to use the term AT ALL). Pediatricians prefer and recommend referring to both dry and secondary drowning as “submersion injuries”. Drowning is drowning — but drowning, in and of itself, doesn’t mean death, it means exposure to water, by submersion, and injury from it. Technically speaking, as I understand best how parents and media talk about it, dry drowning is when a small amount of water causes spasms in the airway and the soft tissues in the airway (epiglottis, larynx) thus causing the airway to close up and make breathing very difficult. This is rare – but would happen within a few minutes of water entering the mouth and throat and being pushed back towards the airway, instigating spasm. This happens immediately after exiting the water. The spasm can be very dangerous and typically would cause sputtering or coughing or choking. This is an immediate reaction to water entering the airway. Read full post »