How can a child drown without being in the water???

Do you remember the story about the boy in South Carolina who died of dry drowning last summer? My first thought was ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing…’, the response dry drowningechoed by most parents I talked to as that frightening story made it’s way around the neighborhood grape-vine. I’ve been working on drowning prevention for a couple of years now, so I know all the scary statistics – that drowning is the second leading cause of death in children in virtually all developed countries, that it happens fast and silently and frequently at home – in the pool, the bath, a bucket. The idea that you could drown without being in the water, up to 24-hours later, was really frightening to me so I did a little research to find out more, the excellent web-site was especially helpful.

Dry drowning is drowning without water – or more specifically, drowning 1-24 hours after a small amount of water has entered the lungs. Too much water and you have the drowning we all recognize, less and you have dry drowning. So, when should you be worried about dry drowning? First and foremost, watch your kids when they are in the water. Drowning can happen in as little as 2 minutes of being unsupervised – that’s faster than you can run to the restroom, catch up with your friend on the phone, handle a crisis in the nearby sandpit or grab yourself a caffeinated drink from the snack bar. If someone comes up sputtering and coughing, keep an eye on them and if that coughing continues for more than a few minutes, or it just doesn’t seem right to you, you should call a doctor. Same for shortness of breath or complaining of chest pain – though I’m guessing that with young kids that may come out as ‘my tummy hurts’, since they are a bit fuzzy on anatomy. Keep an especially close eye on kids with asthma, they are more susceptible. If your child is disoriented or lethargic, or if your parenting instincts are saying ‘this just isn’t right’, best to get them to an emergency doctor right away. I’m not a doctor either, when in doubt always get a professional opinion.

So how can kids get in trouble? Certainly all the obvious ways that kids get a mouthful of water – dunking, water fights, going off a fast slide and getting momentarily disoriented. Far less obvious is the young child who can’t swim or any child that is not a confident swimmer – they may have just taken in too much water even if they were never out of their depth.

The best thing to do? Teach your children water safety from infancy. Get your kids in swimming lessons from toddler-age onwards – swimming and water sports should be fun, healthy, life-long skills. Learn CPR. And most important, watch them like a hawk whenever they are in the water – 2 minutes can be the difference between life and death.

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


5 Responses to “How can a child drown without being in the water???”

  1. Suzanne Wear says:

    This piece reminded me of Traci–after the earthquake she had a siezure and fell into the dog’s water dish. It doesn’t take much.

  2. Buckeroomama says:

    I remembered my initial reaction of horror when I read about that. It really makes moms think twice about leaving their kids unsupervised around water. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Buckeroomama´s last blog ..Merry Christmas! =-.

  3. Mary says:

    In June 2008, the NDPA had received numerous inquiries regarding the recent “dry drowning” incident that made national headlines, gathering attention, interest, and concern. The NDPA Board of Directors and Advisory Council Members gathered the following information on “dry drownings” that may be of benefit to you.

    Information was contributed Dr. Julie Gilchrist with the CDC and Gerald M. Dworkin with Lifesaving Resources, Inc, in hopes to shed some accurate light on this recent news issue. Here are some basic points, followed by more medical-focused information.

    1) First and foremost, news stories like this tend to draw attention to a highly unlikely phenomenon, and away from what we really need to focus on. Drowning prevention advocates should continue to stress known effective safety measures to prevent the more likely scenario; to prevent children from gaining access to a pool or spa unsupervised or encountering difficulty in the water unobserved.

    2) “Dry Drowning” is a term no longer used/preferred by CDC, other international organizations, and most medical groups.

    3) Basic differences between “Dry Drowning” and “Wet Drowning”
    Dry: The term “Dry Drowning” was most commonly used to describe a submerged victim who experienced a laryngeal spasm (closing of the airway) that prevented water from actually getting into the lungs. The victim still experienced the same drowning process with which we are familiar, but no water penetrated the lungs. The victim is typically found at or just below the surface of the water.

    Wet: Water is aspirated into the lungs when the laryngospasm relaxes. Salt water, chlorinated water, and polluted water plays havoc on the lining of the lungs resulting in fluids entering the lungs through osmosis to counter the chemical imbalance. As a result, the alveoli rupture which causes the “foam” described in many of these cases.

    4) Incidents, such at the one described, may have something else going on, that may result in a different cause of death upon completion of autopsy, such as a seizure.

    5) If the child did drink lots of pool water, it likely was a seizure related to hyponatremia or vomiting and aspiration during sleep. Drinking large amounts of pool water is not terribly uncommon though usually with smaller children who think it is fun to drink the pool water. This is another reason that parents need to closely watch their child’s behavior in the pool and intervene if it seems they are drinking the water.

    6) The information below is pulled from textbooks on drowning:

    Dry drownings are due to “laryngeal spasm that fails to allow water to penetrate the lungs and asphyxia occurs.”

    This is from page 17 of Drowning: New Perspectives on Intervention and Prevention. CRC Press 1999. JR Fletemeyer, JS Freas editors. This chapter also claims that “laryngeal spasm occurs in about 10% of drownings. This belief was reinforced by a postmortem study from the 1930s which found that 10% of drowning victims had no water in their lungs. In actual fact there is no concrete evidence that laryngospasm does occur during submersion while there is good experimental evidence that the breath-hold breaks shortly after submersion (Ramey) and the data shows that unanesthetized animals will continue to breathe while submerged (Fainer).”

    References: Model JH, Graves SA, Ketover A. Clinical course of 91 consecutive near-drowning victims. Chest 1976; 70:231.
    Model JH, Moya F. Effects of volume of aspirated fluid during chlorinated fresh water drowning. Anesthesiology 1966; 27:662.
    Ramey CA, Hayward DN, Hayward JS. Dive response of children in relation to cold water drowning. Journal of Applied Physiology 1987; 63:665-8.
    Fainer DC, Martin CG, Ivy AC. Resuscitation of dogs from fresh water drowning. Journal of Applied Physiology 1951; 3:417-26.

    From The Handbook on Drowning: Prevention, Rescue, Treatment. Springer 2006. JJLM Bierens editor: page 47: “in the past, also the terms ‘dry’ versus ‘wet’ drownings were used, but there is consensus that these terms should be abandoned”. Page 380: “The task force also decided to abandon the miscellaneous terms: dry versus wet drowning…” This text is a compilation of the state of the science and a consensus process that occurred in 2002 regarding the definition of drowning and the terms to be used in surveillance, research, programs, etc. CDC was involved in the international effort and in writing and publishing the resultant text.

    7) This is what CDC has provided to inquirers (to reinforce prevention of the common scenarios):

    CDC does not have information or data on this scenario. Children most commonly drown when they get into a pool area unsupervised (for example, if there is inadequate fencing) or they are playing in a pool without constant supervision or lifeguarding. Drownings happen quickly, and usually silently.

    To help prevent water-related injuries:

    Install a four-sided, isolation pool fence that completely separates the house and play area of the yard from the pool area. The fence should be at least 4 feet high. Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children.

    Designate a responsible adult to watch children swimming or playing in or around water. Adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn) while supervising children.

    Learn to swim. Though constant, careful supervision and barriers such as pool fencing are necessary even when children have completed swimming classes.

    Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone’s life.

    Additional recommendations are available on the CDC website at:

    8) Gerald M. Dworkin has posted several of the articles on his website at:

    Meanwhile, the most notable authority on the physiology of drowning in the
    U.S. Is Dr. Jerome Modell

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Thank you very much for posting such detailed information.

      I am in firm agreement with both you and the author of this post – the more we know, the more vigilent we are, the safer our kids will be. Thank you for taking the time to share all of this with us.

      Wishing you and yours a safe and happy New Year!


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