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Dry Drowning

When I read about the 10-year-old South Carolina boy who died earlier this month from something called "dry drowning" hours after swimming -- and then walking home from the pool -- alarms went off in my head. We have a pool in our yard, and while I'm always on alert for regular old drowning, I had never heard of such a thing as the "dry" version.

Turns out there's good reason for that.

Though the term "dry drowning" has long been used to describe just what it sounds like -- drowning away from water -- its use is no longer condoned by drowning experts. One of those experts, pediatrician Deborah Mulligan of Coral Springs, Florida, says the term went out of medical vogue at the 2002 World Congress on Drowning.

"It's very confusing to the layperson to hear that term," Mulligan says. "They wonder 'What does it mean?' It gets people needlessly concerned about terminology rather than focus on steps they can take to prevent drowning in general."

In the-phenomenon-formerly-known-as-dry-drowning, a person who aspirates even a small amount of water into his lungs may experience laryngospasms, in which the larynx (windpipe) constricts to keep more water from entering his lungs. That can, even hours later, trigger respiratory arrest, which can lead to pulmonary edema, buildup of fluid in the lungs. That keeps the lungs from processing oxygen properly and can lead to cardiac arrest and brain death.


Mulligan says nobody keeps data showing how frequently this happens; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes on its Web site that a number of media accounts of "dry drowning" incorrectly cite CDC statistics, which the agency doesn't in fact keep. In any case, Mulligan says, the phenomenon is extremely rare.

So rare, she says, that people really ought to channel their energies into preventing any kind of drowning and other water-related accidents. Here, from the CDC, is a list of advice and other information about keeping water activities safe. It includes such tips as

- Keep within arm's distance of inexperienced swimmers when in the water.

- Maintain close supervision of kids any time they're around water -- even if it's just a toilet or a bucket with some water in it.

- Learn CPR and basic first aid.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 25, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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Jennifer: Interesting topic. I have, several times, awakened in the night with a feeling of choking and your description of laryngospasms hit the nail on the head. Apparently I inhale saliva while I'm sleeping and my windpipe closes up. It takes a few minutes of gulping and gasping for air to start breathing correctly again. Does that mean I'm a candidate for 'dry drowning?' I live alone and it's scarey that I could die in my sleep like this and nobody would have a clue as to why.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 25, 2008 9:27 AM | Report abuse

9:27 - you may have sleep apnea, which is a common, often undiagnosed, but potentially serious syndrome. It may be, as you describe, that you are just choking on saliva. But you may want to see a sleep specialist to determine the reason for your choking at night. Particularly if you feel sleepy during the day or snore.

Posted by: Cliff | June 25, 2008 9:46 AM | Report abuse

To the first poster of the morning: You know, if I were you, I would indeed go to the doctor and get checked; "dry drowning" can be treated if it's caught in time. Good luck and take care.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | June 25, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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