Guest Bloggers

Dry Drowning: Clarifying the Facts

Guest blog by: Arkansas Department of Health with Mary E. Aitken, MD, MPH  – Professor of Pediatrics at UAMS, Director of Arkansas Children’s Injury Prevention Center

There is no substitution for constant supervision by an undistracted, unimpaired adult.

Periodically, parents express concerns about dry drowning, typically after there has been social media report or magazine article using this term. I usually respond by clarifying the facts about this term and focus on how parents can reduce the risk of injury or fatal drowning, which is all too common in Arkansas.

First, the term dry drowning is not a well-accepted medical term. In fact, the World Congress on Drowning, an international advisory body, discourages the use of the term. Instead, drownings should be described as fatal or nonfatal. Drowning kills more than 650 children under 15 in the United States each year. For every child that dies, about 5 get medical care for a nonfatal injury from being submerged in water. In many nonfatal cases, there is complete recovery but about half of these are hospitalized and some have serious long term neurologic problems.

In many cases, people who are rescued by lifeguards recover quickly, but those with symptoms like respiratory distress, cough, and/or vomiting will require evaluation and emergency department care. Parents should always get medical evaluation if they are worried, but should know that most symptoms develop immediately, and that the frightening cases shared in the media are rare cases where symptoms develop 4-6 hours after the event. In these cases, the children show symptoms that indicate that there is a problem. Any child that has persistent or worsening cough, fast breathing, vomiting, fever, or changes in mental status after being submerged in water should be taken to the nearest emergency room for immediate evaluation.

It’s important for everyone to know that drowning is preventable. Layers of protection are required to reduce risk, including both careful supervision and the use of physical barriers to keep children away from bodies of water. Prevent unsupervised access to water by locking house doors and closing off pet doors, having secure and locked 4-sided fencing around pools, removing ladders to above ground pools, and pouring out water from wading pools after each use. A properly fitted US Coast Guard approved life jacket will keep a child’s head from going under water in both pools and open water. Inflatable floaties are not life jackets and don’t provide adequate protection. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swimming lessons and water safety education for children and adults, but reminds us that knowing how to swim does not make a child “drown-proof.” There is no substitution for constant supervision by an undistracted, unimpaired (no alcohol or drugs) adult.  For younger children, adults should be in the water within an arms’ reach, also known as touch supervision.

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