I first heard the term “dry drowning” in a television drama, but according to medical experts, the term is just as fictional as that TV show was. The concept is that a person can die hours or days after being submerged in water and inhaling liquid. However, dry drowning is an outdated term that should not be used because it doesn’t exist. The use of the term is discouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Drowning is defined by the WHO as “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” In other words, you have difficulty breathing if water gets into your airways. Your airways are comprised of your nasal passageways, your trachea (a.k.a. windpipe), and bronchial tubes that are located in your lungs.
Contrary to popular belief, death from drowning is not because of the water in the lungs. Death occurs because of a lack of oxygen. The fluid in the lungs causes spasms in the airways. This results in air and, therefore, oxygen being unable to reach the lungs.
Drowning does not always result in death. According to the WHO, death is one of three outcomes from being submersed or immersed in liquid. The other two outcomes either cause injury or do not cause harm.
Dry Drowning — The Myth
It is unclear why the myth of dry drowning persists. “Dry Drowning and Other Myths,” an article in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine states, “Many alleged cases of dry drowning are reported every year, but each has been found to have a recognized medical source that has a legitimate medically recognized diagnosis (which dry and secondary drowning are not).”
According to Dr. Maria Teresa Santiago, division chief of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine and the Cystic Fibrosis Center at Northwell Health, “dry drowning” is term that was propagated by the media in 2017. It happened after a 4-year-old boy in Texas died one week after being briefly submerged in knee-deep water.
“Media accounts went viral,” she tells Parentology. “The child was later found to have a myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, and the submersion incident was not the cause of death.”
Santiago explains that when someone takes in a small amount of water through the mouth or nose, they may develop airway spasms. Water does not actually enter the lungs, but the symptoms occur as protection, preventing water from entering the lungs. These symptoms usually occur soon after exiting water.
“The correct medical term is ‘submersion injury,'” she explains. “In most cases of mild submersion injuries, symptoms will subside in a few hours. Symptoms requiring medical attention include difficulty breathing — shallow breathing, flaring of the nostrils, retractions — persistent coughing, increased sleepiness, change in behavior, lethargy, and vomiting.”
Live Science quoted Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians as saying, “There are no cases of completely normal, asymptomatic patients who suddenly die because they went swimming a few days ago. It’s time to retire those incorrect terms, because it is inaccurate and incorrect to say a child was initially fine after a water event and then ‘dry drowned’ a day or a week later.”
Live Science goes on to say, “Still, in very rare instances, a person can die as a result of breathing problems several days after being submerged in water. The name for such an occurrence? Drowning.”
What Is Dry Drowning — Sources
World Health Organization: Violence and Injury Prevention – Drowning
CDC – Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts
Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine – ‘Dry Drowning and Other Myths’
Live Science – Why ER Doctors Want to Banish the Term ‘Dry Drowning’