When parents ask about "dry drowning"

June 6, 2008

News reports of the death of a South Carolina boy attributed the accident to "dry drowning," a paradoxically scary term.

News reports of the death of a South Carolina boy attributed the accident to "dry drowning," a paradoxically scary term.

Except the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though, have no data on "dry drowning," a term that does not have a set-up definition.

On Sunday, June 1 according to multiple news sources, 10-year-old Johnny Jackson got water in his lungs while swimming in a pool. He was able to walk home, take a bath, and go to bed, but died in his sleep during a nap an hour later. The cause of his death was secondary drowning, and the county coroner reported water in the boy's lungs.

Secondary drowning is the loss of pulmonary function after "loss or inactivation of surfactant" of the alveoli in the lungs, according to the British Medical Journal. Freshwater near-drownings stands a much better chance of recovery from secondary drownings than salt-water near-drownings.

Media outlets such as the Today Show referred to the cause of death as "dry drowning." Todayshow.com reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified up to 15% of all drowning deaths as due to "dry drowning."

But CDC enterprise communications officer Sandy Bonzo said the CDC has "no data" regarding dry drowning at all, including the 15% figure. Other CDC figures in the news report, such as almost 3,600 drowning in 2005, were accurate. Today Show officials did verify safe-swimming information with the CDC, Bonzo said.

The Today Show's tips on how to be safe, though, seemed to create more fear than reassurance. Dry drowning can occur at a pool, lake, the ocean, or even a bath, up to 24 hours after the immersion. Warning signs of not getting enough oxygen include difficulty breathing, extreme tiredness, and change in behavior, the latter two of which can happen in normal childhood often.

The term "dry drowning" could conceivably apply to secondary drowning, as well as laryngospasms, and such external causes as a lung puncture or a heavier-than-air gas filling the lungs.

Pediatricians may receive calls or questions from concerned parents, wanting to know what steps to take. CDC's water-safety steps still apply: never swim alone, always have an adult supervising, don't drink alcohol while swimming or supervising, learn to swim, and keep pools safe and well maintained.