It’s true. Though it’s rare, accounting for only 1-2% of drowning fatalities, it can happen hours after leaving the pool. This phenomenon is called “dry drowning,” “secondary drowning,” or as life guards call it “parking lot drowning,” and it happens when someone inhales a small amount of water from near drowning or a sudden rush of water, triggering muscles in the airway to spasm, interfering with the flow of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream. This causes pulmonary edema, which is excess fluid in the lungs.

It only takes a few seconds for a person to breathe in a tiny bit of water, and a person can be out of the water and walking around normally for hours before signs of dry drowning occur, usually within one to 24 hours. It can result in breathing trouble and brain injury, and if left untreated, can be fatal.

Signs of dry drowning may not be easy to recognize, especially in a child who has had a long day of swimming. Here are some signs to look for, especially if your child struggled in the water and perhaps had a near drowning experience during the day:

A person who has inhaled water can have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Fever
  • Extreme fatigue

If you notice any of these signs, you should go to the emergency room as soon as possible, as time is a factor in dry drowning just as it is in water drowning. Also, pool chemicals make pool water more dangerous as they irritate the lungs even more. If caught in time, dry drowning can be treated with oxygen and removing fluid from the lungs.

Though young children are more vulnerable to this phenomenon, age is not a factor. Adults can also be victim to dry drowning. It’s preventable, just like any other drowning case. Read our blog on swimming safety to see how.