De-bunking “dry drowning”

May 22, 2018

People tend to think of drowning as being submerged underwater for a prolonged period of time. However, drowning can happen from something as simple as getting splashed with water in the mouth. The term drowning refers to any time water gets past the protective cartilage that covers your windpipe (the epiglottis) and ends up in the lungs.

According to Sue Karnitis, MD, Kettering Physician Network pediatrician, there are three types of drowning: fatal, non-fatal without complications, and non-fatal with complications. “The most important thing for people to know,” Dr. Karnitis says, “is that there is no such thing as drowning and having no symptoms. When the term ‘dry drowning’ pops up, we find that the children had symptoms, they were just symptoms that presented less dramatically.”

As Joia Henson, APRN-CNP, explains, “‘Dry drowning’ is not a medically-accepted term,” which means that it is not actually listed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a medical condition. “Parents should watch for children who become suddenly ill following any water exposure.”

What you should look for

Any kind of sudden respiratory problem indicates that a child should be evaluated in the emergency room.

  • Coughing that doesn’t go away or is getting worse
  • Children who don’t stop clearing their throat
  • Young children who are breathing more shallowly
  • Lowered energy levels in a normally active child

Dr. Karnitis also notes for parents to be aware that when it comes to drowning, the most important part of CPR is ventilation. Parents can help reduce risks for their children by making sure they know how to administer proper CPR and never leave children unsupervised. Water safety is not limited to pools, and also includes never leaving babies around any kind of water, even in the home.

When you need emergency care, every minute matters. Kettering Health Network has 10 full-service emergency centers ready to care for you and your family. Find your nearest location at