HCA Virginia - February 01, 2019

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children, ages one to four. The terms near drowning, secondary drowning, and dry drowning have been heard in the news over the past few years, but many professionals reject these expressions and simply categorize all of them as drowning. While some movies conjure up images of swimmers thrashing about in the water, most drownings occur silently and a person actually can drown up to 24 hours after an incident takes place. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of any type of drowning assures the best outcome for the victim.


Near-Drowning is respiratory impairment from being in or under a liquid. Normal air exchange is prevented when a person’s nose and mouth are under the surface of a liquid or when their face comes in contact with liquid and fills the lungs. At first, the person holds their breath but, eventually, the liquid flows into the lungs. This liquid will not allow normal breathing in the lungs to happen.

Secondary Drowning is when water is inhaled into the lungs, causing inflammation and swelling, and difficulty breathing. This can occur up to 24 hours after the water is inhaled.

Dry Drowning, though rare, occurs when a person gets a small amount of water in their throat, which causes a spasm of the vocal chords and makes breathing more difficult. Dry drowning usually occurs soon after swallowing the water.


Symptoms of all types of drowning may include:

  • Persistent coughing or wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Rapid, shallow breathing or nostril flaring
  • Sleepiness, vomiting, or blue skin due to a lack of oxygen
  • Irritability or a drop in energy level
  • Any odd change in behavior
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Cardiopulmonary arrest

It is important to note that in some people breathing problems may not happen until several hours after a near-drowning accident. It’s also important to know whether the person was diving into the water. The most important response is to call for emergency medical services right away to restore breathing and prevent death. In potential secondary drowning incidents, parents or caregivers should seek medical attention with any sign of behavioral or breathing changes, no matter how small.

Risk Factors for Drowning

Children are most often the victims of drowning. The following factors increase a child’s risk:

  • Not knowing how to swim
  • Being unsupervised around water
  • Having an unfenced pool or spa in the home
  • Among children less than 1 year old, the most common risk factor is being left in a bathtub unattended, even for a few minutes.

Factors that may increase the chance of drowning in older children or adults include:

  • Not knowing how to swim
  • Rough play around water or unsafe diving resulting in trauma
  • Risk-taking behavior around pools or other bodies of water
  • Use of drugs or alcohol prior to incident
  • Being in a body of water and having a prior medical condition, such as seizure disorder, fainting, cardiac conditions, or hypoglycemia


To help reduce the chance that you or someone you know will drown:

  • Never leave children alone with any body of water including pools, bathtubs and buckets. Drowning can occur within moments.
  • Take swimming lessons and teaching water safety, but remember that even a child who knows how to swim is still at risk for drowning and needs constant supervision.
  • Completely enclose pool areas with a fence or barrier. All gates or doors leading from the house to the pool area should have a self-closing, self-latching gate that is above the reach of toddlers and young children. A pool alarm or rigid pool cover also can be lifesaving.
  • If you use a lightweight, floating pool cover, be extra alert to the potential for drowning accidents, as these covers do not keep people from falling in. No one should ever crawl or walk on them.
  • Remove any obstacles to allow a full view of the pool or spa from the house.
  • Body parts and hair can be trapped in pool drains. Be sure that the pool has drain covers or a filter system to release the suction.
  • Ensure careful supervision of all guests if alcoholic beverages are served at a spa or pool.
  • When swimming in open water, choose an area where there is a lifeguard.
  • Always wear life vests when boating.
  • There is a risk of drowning during the wintertime. Warn children and others about the danger of walking or skating on thin ice.
  • Do not allow anyone of any age to swim alone. A supervising adult should be within arm's length of infants and toddlers who are swimming. The adult should know how to swim, be able to rescue someone, and do CPR.