Why incorrect terms like ‘dry drowning’ can be confusing for parents

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6 life-saving water safety rules for parents
Watch: 6 life-saving water safety rules for parents – Jul 8, 2019

It’s a term you may have seen pop up in your news feed, but experts are warning parents against sharing stories with the term “dry drowning.”

Barbara Byers, public education and research director at Lifesaving Society Ontario told Global News that “dry drowning” — similar to “secondary drowning” or “silent drowning” — are all incorrect terms.

“There is no such thing as ‘dry drowning,’ the term is not scientifically correct,” she explained. “The internationally accepted definition of drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment [after] submersion or immersion in a liquid.”

She added drowning outcomes are either fatal or non-fatal.

Experts who have used the term define it as inhaling water through the nose or mouth, but not experiencing any drowning symptoms until the child or adult is out of the water.

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“They had respiratory impairment [and] they had liquid in their respiratory system,” Byers said.

READ MORE: A child can drown 24 hours after being in water: What parents should know

Shelley Dalke, director of swimming and water safety education programs at the Canadian Red Cross added a non-fatal drowning means the chain of events was interrupted prior to death.

“[For example, when someone is] retrieved from below the surface and is breathing, or retrieved and was not breathing, however resuscitation occurred,” she said.

“Fatalities after the event are not ‘dry drownings’ as the person is no longer immersed in the liquid. Fatalities that occur after may be associated as complications from the event, but not necessarily. Fatal drowning means there was not a successful rescue and/or resuscitation. When a person succumbs hours/days/months after the event, it is not a drowning.”

Confusion over terms

Parachute Canada CEO Pamela Fuselli said the term has been around for decades.

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“It’s one that seems to persist, unfortunately, and I think it’s confusing from a couple of standpoints,” she said. Not only is it confusing for parents trying to compare the general definition of drowning, Fuselli added, but also for experts who try to “categorize and quantify the scope of the issue.”

Experts said there are several news outlets and experts who still use the term to describe a drowning after leaving the pool.

U.K.-based doctor Dr. Diana Gall, from Doctor4U told Yahoo U.K., “dry drowning is a condition that overwhelmingly affects children,” adding it happens when a child is out of the water.

In June, reported about how “dry drowning” (the “silent killer,” according to the article) almost took the life of a local one-year-old girl. 

Sites like Medical News today and WebMD have all used the term to describe these respiratory impairments.

READ MORE: 4-year-old dies after drowning in backyard swimming pool in Laval

In 2018, emergency doctors released a report in Emergency Medicine News, illustrating how sharing articles with the term “dry drowning” could add to the confusion of what drowning actually is.

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In 2017, there was a highly publicized story of a Texas boy who died a week after he was hit by a wave while playing in shallow water.

“Initial reports blamed his death on ‘dry drowning,’ which started a media frenzy that sent panicked parents to have their children checked after inhaling water,” the authors noted. “Some news reports used other inaccurate, medically discredited terms such as ‘secondary drowning’ or ‘near-drowning.'”

An autopsy later revealed the child had suffered from recurrent myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. “Unfortunately, few news stories provided corrected information about the real cause of death, and subsequent social media posts spread more alarm by continuing to offer signs and symptoms of ‘dry drowning,” the report said.

What to look out for

Dalke said when a child breathes in water, there are symptoms parents can look out for.

“[The symptoms are] coughing, lethargy and laboured breathing hours after leaving the water,” she said. “If your child exhibits symptoms after a struggle in the water that do not subside, you should seek medical attention.”
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In some incidents, she added, a child in water can contract aspiration pneumonia. “This is an infection that develops from water trapped in the lungs, but is not a drowning. However these are rare cases. Typically, the body takes care of water in the airway by coughing it out.”

Fuselli said drownings happen at all ages, and for some children under five, this can also include in the bathtub. For parents, any time there is water involved, there needs to be a designated adult watching over the child.

“Parents and caregivers need to understand that drowning is preventable,” Dalke said. “Ensuring you have barriers to access to water for children, [prevention plans] are the key to preventing drownings.”

Safety tips parents need to remember

The Canadian Red Cross also offered these additional tips:

Set up restrictions: Ensure that access to open water or pools is restricted for toddlers and children who have do not have the capacity to understand the consequences associated with and/or skill to survive falling/entering into water. This includes four-sided fencing (not climbable) with a self-latching gate around pools.

Create safety zones: In open-water environments, parents/caregivers will have to create a safety zone for children, far away from the water’s edge, and ensure that children are supervised at all times away from the water as well when the risk of access is present.

READ MORE: Here’s how to keep your kids safe around the pool this summer

Set up rules for your child: Teach your children that permission to be near water is the rule for safety. This ensures you are prepared for the risks associated with the environment.

Supervise all children: If your non-swimming child is in the water, be in the water with your child within arm’s reach, with your attention focused on the child. If you don’t intend for your child to be in the water, ensure the child does not have access to the water without supervision.

Wear life jackets: Ensure that non and weak swimmers are wearing Transport Canada approved life-jackets (boating or inflatables) when near or on water.

Parents should also be prepared: Parents and guardians need to take steps to prevent drowning such as signing children up for swimming lessons, having up-to-date CPR training, use of life-jackets, pool gates and locks, and always engage in active supervision around water.

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