'Dry Drowning' Averted: Girl, 4, Recovers After Mom Recognizes Symptoms

Four-year-old Elianna Grace of Bradenton, Florida, is recovering after experiencing a near “dry drowning,” a rare condition that her mom was able to recognize and get her medical attention.

Ms. Lacey Grace had a hunch about her daughter after she recalled reading about a dry drowning case in Texas last year that received national attention. A 4-year-old Houston boy had died days after ingesting pool water and coming down with symptoms that his parents thought were related to a stomach bug.

On April 14, little Elianna was with family members in their backyard pool in Bradenton when she accidentally swallowed pool water while playing. She was shaken up a bit at first, but seemed fine after a few minutes and returned to playing, her mother recalls.

Two days later, the girl came down with a fever that wouldn’t go away. Her mother, Ms. Grace, told ABC News that she feared her daughter was experiencing a dry drowning like the 4-year-old Texas boy who died last year. She took Elianna to a nearby urgent care center.

The girl’s heart rate suddenly sped up while being examined by a doctor at the urgent care center, the mother said. Her daughter’s oxygen levels dropped and her skin turned purple. The doctor told Ms. Grace to get her daughter to the closest emergency room as soon as possible.

In cases of a dry drowning — also referred to as “secondary drowning” — symptoms can occur hours afterward as fluid floods the lungs over a period of time. Ingesting the water can lead to spasms in the airway, causing it to close up and impact breathing. The lungs respond to the trapped water by swelling. Ultimately, the fluid in the lungs makes it hard for the body to absorb oxygen.

“I could sense the immediate concern written all over her face, so that was the first time I truly broke down,” Ms. Grace told ABC News. “At that point, I had no clue how it was going to end. I was so, so, so terrified.”

Two hours later, Elianna was transferred by ambulance to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. She was treated for aspiration pneumonia, secondary to the pool water ingestion that occurred on April 14, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Elianna was released from the hospital Saturday afternoon, exactly one week after inhaling the pool water. Ms. Grace said her daughter is “doing well” and “getting better everyday,” though she’s still not quite herself.

“I’ve already seen drastic improvements with her,” the mother said. “If we could get her to eat better and stop being so lethargic, I would consider her back to normal.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not have precise records of dry drowning incidents nationwide. From 2005-2014, the CDC estimated 3,536 fatal unintentional drowning (non-boating related) cases annually. About 1 in 5 people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries, the CDC states.

If a child takes in a lot of water while swimming or playing in the water, too much of it can enter the airways or the lungs, causing a persistent cough or breathing difficulty, according to Fernando Mendoza, M.D., medical director, Baptist Children’s Hospital Emergency Center.

Dr. Mendoza advises parents and caregivers to watch children carefully after they’re out of the pool. “If your child is seen coughing and having a hard time breathing, bring him or her to the emergency room right away,” he says. “Keep in mind, symptoms can occur several hours after playing in the pool.”

Dry Drowning Warning Signs
Here are signs to look for in a child that should raise a red flag during the hours following an initial near-drowning or other water incident:

  • A cough that develops a couple of hours after swimming or submersion.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • Irritability.
  • Lethargy, extreme sleepiness or a drop in energy.

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