When a ten year old child from South Carolina died of dry drowning two years ago, a doctor interviewed by MSNBC advised viewers that they may have to be advocates in the emergency room if they suspect they or someone in their families is suffering a potential dry drowning. That’s because even emergency room personnel are not always familiar with dry drowning, asphyxiation after swallowing small amounts of pool or bath water.
How Dry Drowning Occurs
Dry drowning occurs after swallowing water, usually while swimming. Death in dry drowning cases is the result of larynx spasms preventing oxygenation of the lungs. That this condition is a form of drowning is counter-intuitive because dry drowning can be triggered by swallowing very little water and may occur hours after the water intake.
According to Ehow.com, about 15% of drowning deaths are actually dry drownings, where there is very little fluid in the lungs and asphyxiation causes death. Dry drownings can occur as much as 24 hours after exposure to water in a pool or even a bathtub.
There are three important symptoms that should trigger an emergency room visit when the possibility of an impending dry drowning is at hand:
– Difficulty breathing,
– Extreme tiredness, and
– Uncharacteristic behavior
These dry drowning symptoms may be difficult to detect according to experts. Uncharacteristic behavior, for example, can mean anything from sudden and uncharacteristic argumentativeness to accidental defecation. Extreme tiredness can be hard to identify since swimming often produces fatigue.
If a potential dry drowning is suspected, the victim should be rushed to the emergency room. The treatment for an impending dry drowning is the insertion of a breathing tube until the lungs are able to function on their own.
Incidence of Dry Drowning Deaths
About 150,000 drowning deaths are reported worldwide annually, while in the United States there are about 8000 per year. With 15% of drowning deaths being dry drownings, the number of dry drowning deaths in the United States each year is about 1200.
Swimming pools are implicated in 14 times the number of deaths in young children as motor vehicles according to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Study reported at emedicine.com.
Drowning Deaths by Blackouts
Another common but not popularly recognized cause of drowning deaths is blackouts resulting from hyperventilation. Hyperventilation often occurs when swimmers are preparing to dive or engage in swimming contests. Hyperventilation causes a decrease in arterial carbon dioxide which triggers use of oxygen stored in muscles and causes the swimmer to black out. The blacked out swimmer does not return to the surface for air.
Hyperventilation occurs when swimmers hold their breath and is often accompanied by a tingling sensation in the fingers and dizziness.
Hyperventilation can be prevented by relaxing before a dive or other breath-holding swimming event, taking normal breaths, and by surfacing and breathing immediately upon feeling the need to breathe.
In all types of drowning, the treatment needed is getting oxygen to the lungs.
Sources: Celizic, Mike, “Boy’s Death Highlights a Hidden Danger: Dry Drowning,” June 5, 2008, www.msnbc.com; http://scuba-doc.com/latenthypoxia.html; “Dry Drowning,” www.wikipedia.com, “How to Determine a Dry Drowning,” www.ehow.com; Moore Sheperd, Suzanne, “Drowning,” www.emedicine.com; “Drowning, Dry Drowning and Shallow Water Blackout,” www.surviveoutdoors.com; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shallow_water_blackout;