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Dry drowning and secondary drowning: How to spot them and prevent them

/ Source: TODAY Contributor

A week after getting knocked down by a wave while playing in the water, 4-year-old Frankie suddenly stopped breathing after having what seemed like a stomach bug. Dad Francisco Delgado Jr. called 911 but it was too late to save the boy. The family said that doctors told them that the boy died of what the family referred to as dry drowning.

"All I'm trying to do is spread awareness, because I don't want nobody to go through what we're going through," Delgado said. "He wasn't just my boy, he was my best friend, and I miss him so much."

Both dry and secondary drowning are extremely rare, but dangerous. They have different causes and symptoms. Both usually affect children, and they occur long after people have gotten out of the water.

What dry drowning looks like

In dry drowning, water is in the mouth or nose and the vocal cords spasm, trapping the water, causing the person to asphyxiate.

“You don’t get any water in your lungs. It goes through your nose and your mouth and the muscles close off and spasm,” said Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director Nethercutt Emergency Center, UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica, who did not treat Frankie.

Dry drowning might resemble choking, and people turn blue.

“Dry drowning is very visible,” he said.

Secondary drowning happens when someone swallows water and it gets trapped in the lungs, which causes inflammation and produces fluid.

"You end up with an infection with fluid in your lungs," Ghurabi said.

What secondary drowning looks like

Secondary drowning escalates over 24 hours and it is not always clear who might experience it. While parents don’t need to haul their children to the emergency room every time their kids get a mouthful of water, they should watch for rapid, labored breathing.

“They are breathing faster,” said Ghurabi. “Just like when they have bad croup. You see them working hard.”

Other signs of secondary drowning are lethargy, and parents often report feeling like something is just "off" with their child. (Trust your instincts!)

How to prevent it

The best way to prevent dry and secondary drowning? Teach children to swim. Having the ability to breathe while swimming without gulping water helps prevent both dry and secondary drowning. Of course, making sure kids can swim also helps prevent classic, "regular" drowning -- which is the second leading cause of accidental, injury-related death for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ghurabi also urges parents to pay attention to their children while swimming. That way parents know if their children swallowed water, for example.

“To recognize dry drowning versus secondary drowning you have to pay attention to your children,” he said. “Watch their breathing and seek help and if you are not able to understand what is going on.”

Signs of drowning (they're not what you may think)

And, it’s important to remember that drowning does not look like most people think of it does, with people thrashing around and calling for help. Signs that someone might be in distress include:

  • Glassy or closed eyes
  • Head titled back as the person tries floating
  • Mouth at water level, which may go between being above and below it