Drowning in a sea of misinformation: Dry drowning and secondary drowning

Recently, a young child died following days of vomiting. He had been in shallow water in a Texas dike about a week before his death. The story was picked up as an alleged case of a rare condition called dry drowning or secondary drowning. The media accounts went viral, spreading significant fear in parenting communities and among those learning about these alleged conditions from the news or social media.

Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the family and to those who treated the patient. Drowning deaths are a common cause of pediatric death, and we need to be particularly vigilant about sharing correct, meaningful, and medically credible information.

Unfortunately, there is significant misinformation in the media reports of this case.

1. The medical definition of drowning is “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.” Drowning has only three outcomes: fatal drowning, nonfatal drowning with injury or illness, or nonfatal drowning without injury or illness.

2. There are no medically accepted conditions known as near-drowning, dry drowning, and secondary drowning. The World Health Organization, the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation, the Wilderness Medical Society, the Utstein Style system, the International Life Saving Federation, the International Conference on Drowning, Starfish Aquatics Institute, the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all discourage the use of these terms.

Unfortunately, these terms still slip past the editors of major medical journals, allowing their use to be perpetuated. These terms are most pervasive in the nonmedical press and social media, where the term drowning seems to be synonymous with death. We must find a better way to educate the public on how to discuss drowning as a process and using modern definitions.

  • Near-drowning. Historically, drowning was used to indicate death, while near-drowning was used to describe patients who survive, at least initially. But many people suffer from strokes, cardiac arrest, or car collisions every year. We wouldn’t consider them near-strokes, near-cardiac arrest, or near-car collisions just because the person survived. The same is true for drowning and near-drowning. A person can drown and survive the same way that a person can have a cardiac arrest and survive.
  • Dry drowning. Dry drowning is a term that has never had an accepted medical definition, and has been used at different times to describe different parts of the drowning process. Many media reports use it as a synonym for secondary drowning, but in the past, it described the lack of water found in the lungs of drowning victims at autopsy. Laryngospasm may play a role in some of these cases. During the drowning process, very little water actually enters the lungs, typically less than 2 mL/kg body weight. This would mean only 30 mL of water would enter the lungs of an average 3-year-old. If underwater for more than a minute or so, the main problem is a lack of oxygen to the brain, and CPR should be started to restore oxygen to the brain. If the person is rescued before his brain runs out of oxygen, then that small amount of water in the lungs is absorbed and causes no problems, or it can cause excessive coughing that gets better or worse over the next few hours. The management is the same regardless of whether small amounts of water are present, so this distinction between wet and dry drownings was abandoned as clinically meaningless years ago by drowning specialists.
  • Secondary drowning. Sometimes known as delayed drowning, this term also has no currently accepted medical definition. Its historical use reflects the reality that patients may sometimes worsen after water exposure. The take-home point is that anyone who experiences respiratory symptoms after a drowning incident (using the modern definition above) should seek medical care. There has never been a case published in the medical literature of a patient initially without symptoms who later deteriorates and dies. People who have drowned and have minimal symptoms will either get better or worse within two to three hours.

0.5 to 5.0 percent of minimally symptomatic patients died. This is the valid part of the concern about drowning patients who initially have minimal symptoms: They should seek medical care. What are minimal symptoms? Using an experience familiar to almost everyone, we recommend that care be sought if symptoms seem any worse than the experience of a drink going down the wrong pipe at the dinner table.

Usually these patients can be observed for four to six hours in an emergency department and be released if normal.

In our experience, spontaneous pneumothorax, chemical pneumonitis, bacterial or viral pneumonia, head injury, asthma, and chest trauma have all been misattributed to delayed drowning.

3. Nonfatal drownings of this sort are common. Cases where a person has minimal symptoms after a drowning incident, such as cough, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), or confusion, are far more common than fatal drownings. It is often quoted in the media that this type of drowning is rare, but that is incorrect. It is actually the most common presentation of drowning. It is estimated that there are five nonfatal drownings for every fatal drowning in children. There are almost 13,000 emergency department visits per year for drowning, with only about 3,500 drowning deaths in the United States. In fact, 95 to 99.5 percent of patients who have these symptoms and a normal blood pressure survive.

What is rare is for these minimally symptomatic cases to progress to death. Similarly, this is also true of heart attacks: Most cases don’t progress to death. Nonetheless, they can certainly deteriorate or progress, which is why we encourage people to seek care immediately when they have warning signs like chest pain. The warning signs for drowning are submersion or immersion followed by difficulty breathing, excessive coughing, foam in the mouth, and not acting normally. Subsequent death or complication from drowning is no more a secondary or delayed drowning than subsequent death or complication from heart attack is a secondary or delayed heart attack.

4. The bottom line. Near, dry, wet, delayed, and secondary drownings are not medically accepted diagnoses. We urge you to abandon these terms in favor of understanding and communicating drowning as a process that can be mild, moderate, or severe with fatal or nonfatal outcomes. Someone who drowns and survives has suffered a nonfatal drowning.

Seth Collings Hawkins, Justin Sempsrott, and Andrew Schmidt are emergency physicians. Dr. Hawkins can be reached on Twitter @hawk_sc. This abridged article originally appeared in Emergency Medicine News, where the full article and references may be found. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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