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‘Dry Drowning’ – Warning Signs That Parents Should Know

The “dry drowning” death of a 4-year-old boy from Houston has brought national attention to a rare condition that can occur hours or even days after a child inhales too much water. The parents of Frankie Delgado, who died June 3, say that they hope other parents become educated about the warning signs of this unusual condition.

“Dry drowning” — also referred to as “secondary drowning” if symptoms occur hours or days afterward — is when fluid floods the lungs. But this condition is not caused by too much fluid absorbed through the mouth or the breathing pipe, as in the case of typical submersion drownings.

During a dry drowning, a little bit of water gets inside the lungs from possibly a near-drowning experience, or by having taken in too much water while playing in a pool, or during something as seemingly harmless as being tossed around by waves at the beach. The water can also lead to spasms in the airway, causing it to close up and impact breathing.

In secondary drownings, the lungs respond to the trapped water by swelling. Ultimately, the fluid in the lungs makes it hard for the body to absorb oxygen. Oxygen blood levels can drop, potentially causing a slowed heart rate and, in rare cases, cardiac arrest. All of this can occur several hours — or even several days — after the initial water incident or near-drowning.

If a child takes in a lot of water while swimming normally, aspiration can occur, according to Fernando Mendoza, M.D. [1], medical director, Baptist Children’s Hospital Emergency Center [2].

Dr. Mendoza advises parents and caregivers to watch children well 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.

The Houston boy died last week after going swimming with the family. His father, Francisco Delgado Jr., told a Houston TV news station that he called 911 when his son stopped breathing after showing stomach bug symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea.

After learning of the Houston boy’s death, a father in Colorado said he was able to recognize “dry drowning” symptoms in his son before it turned fatal. Garon Vega, of Fort Collins, said his 2-year-old son Gio went swimming last Wednesday and complained about head pain shortly afterward. The boy reportedly swallowed a small amount of water. The head pain developed into a fever that persisted throughout the day. The father said he took his son to a nearby emergency room where doctors found a “significant amount of fluid in his lungs.” Vega credits Delgado’s story for saving his son’s life.

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:

Drowning is the second most common cause of death by unintentional injury, behind car accidents, among children ages 1-4 years-old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal accidental drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about 10 deaths per day, the CDC says. However, the CDC does not have statistics on “dry drownings.”

About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger.