We all know the most basic definition of drowning: suffocation due to being underwater and unable to breathe. But in recent years there have been a number of stories in the press relating to other drowning-related terms that have understandably caused concern in parents.
We asked Kate Evans, a former A&E registrar who now teaches Water Babies classes across Cornwall and South Devon, as well as sitting on our medical panel, to explain the differences between wet drowning, dry drowning, near drowning and secondary drowning to try and clear up any confusion and put your mind at rest.
What's the difference between wet & dry drowning?
When a person goes underwater, they instinctively hold their breath. If water manages to enter their airway, a reflex called the laryngospasm kicks in, a normal response mechanism where the voice box (or larynx) instinctively spasms, closing off the lungs and preventing water from entering them. We also have another reflex which makes us either swallow or cough up any water that’s in our throat.
The longer somebody is underwater, the more the oxygen levels in their body drops, and eventually the laryngospasm subsides because they need to take a breath. If they were still underwater at this point, they'd breathe in water and drown. This is what’s referred to as wet drowning.
In a minority of people, this spasm doesn’t subside. Instead the lungs remain shut-off, causing suffocation without any water actually getting into the lungs. This is what is known as dry drowning.
What's the difference between near and secondary drowning?
Near drowning is where a person recovers from an incident which has resulted in their natural reflexes becoming overwhelmed and water entering their lungs, such as spending a prolonged period of time underwater, or in cases of extreme panic or distress under the water.
In incidents of near drowning, small amounts of water enter the lungs, causing their lining to become damaged, inflamed and permeable so they fill with bodily fluid. This can result in reduced oxygen getting around the body.
A person who’s experienced a near drowning incident would need to be monitored for the next 72 hours as they’d be at risk of secondary drowning.
Secondary drowning can only occur after a near drowning incident. There will be worsening symptoms over the course of the next 48-72 hours, including increased shortness of breath, lethargy and vomiting. If any of these are present after a near drowning incident, medical attention should be sought immediately.
What can I do to protect my child?
Always watch them while they’re in the pool, bath, paddling pool and around any body of water. If they fall underwater unsupervised, monitor them afterwards for signs of lethargy or breathing problems, and if you’re at all worried, seek medical help.
How do Water Babies classes help little ones to keep safe?
Most cases of drowning and near drowning occur due to panic, which overrides our natural reflexes. At Water Babies, we not only teach babies and toddlers to enjoy being in water, but also that it’s natural to go underwater. We teach life-saving safety skills so that if they did fall into water, they’d know what to do and, vitally, would be much less likely to panic. This reduces the risk of drowning and secondary drowning even before they’re old enough and strong enough to get themselves to safety.
All Water Babies teachers are very well-trained to teach gentle, short, controlled submersions. Our medical panel has helped create a programme that starts off with small underwater swims, and progressively teaches your child to control their breathing before they go underwater.
Why does my baby sometimes cough and splutter after an underwater swim?
This is perfectly normal, and shows that your baby’s natural reflexes are working to clear fluid from the back of their throat and prevent it entering their lungs.
Sometimes we see laryngospasm continue for a couple of seconds after a baby has come up from an underwater swim. Again, this is normal, and your teacher knows how to relax this extended breath hold.
Here at Water Babies we've taught over 275,000 babies and toddlers to swim since we first opened our doors in 2002, and have seen many cases of little ones saving themselves after falling into water, thanks to the skills they've learned with us. We’ve had no cases of drowning - near, dry, secondary or otherwise.