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There's no such thing as dry drowning, doctors say

| Thursday, June 14, 2018, 11:51 a.m.
Physicians and water safety experts so-called “dry” or “secondary drowning” may be on the minds of parents when it shouldn’t be, and shifts focus from real concerns.
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Physicians and water safety experts so-called “dry” or “secondary drowning” may be on the minds of parents when it shouldn’t be, and shifts focus from real concerns.

As kids cannonball into summer pools and swim in Lake Michigan, parents keep a watchful eye to make sure they're safe.

But physicians and water safety experts say one worry — so-called “dry” or “secondary drowning” — may be on the minds of parents when it shouldn't be, and shifts focus from real concerns.

“Everyone needs to calm down,” said Dr. Peter Wernicki, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. “This whole thing has totally been over-hyped by social media and people who are not knowledgeable on the subject.”

Misconceptions

With summer swim season beginning, tales appear on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, typically involving a child who was rescued from the water, or gulped down a mouthful, and then stops breathing hours — or even days — later.

But the misconception is that these children showed no symptoms between the time they left the water and when their parents noticed breathing distress, Wernicki said. It leads parents to worry that even if their child seems OK and is breathing normally, they could still be in danger.

“That just doesn't happen,” he said. “A child doesn't (act fine) for eight hours and then die (from drowning).”

In some of these incidents, the child contracted aspiration pneumonia — an infection that develops from water trapped in the lungs. But that isn't drowning, Wernicki said. It's a rare condition, he added, and a child with it would show symptoms, including coughing and labored breathing many hours after leaving the water, and parents would know something was wrong.

The confusion over these conditions led the Red Cross and other medical organizations to advise medical professionals not to use the misleading terms “dry drowning” and “secondary drowning,” Wernicki said. “What people should be talking about is how to prevent drowning.” That includes swimming lessons, CPR training, use of life jackets, pool gates and locks, and parental supervision, he said.

Despite education campaigns to that effect, the misconception remains. Calls from scared parents flood pediatricians' offices, and emergency room doctors examine seemingly fine children after they cough up pool water.

“Either you drown or you don't,” said Dr. Charles Nozicka, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.

In the rare cases when a patient develops aspiration pneumonia, they are “still coughing, still breathing fast” in the hours after a water rescue, Nozicka said.

Typically, the body takes care of water in the airway by coughing it out, he said. Then, the symptoms subside.

“If you're in the water, regardless of how short you think it was, if there are any lingering symptoms, you need to seek medical attention,” he said.

But what doctors are seeing is parents bringing in children who show no symptoms, said Dr. Melissa Millewich, an emergency room physician at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill.

They often refer to children they've read about on social media, Millewich said. She informs them there's been no documented case of an asymptomatic child dying from drowning days after leaving the pool. And she offers water safety tips, like encouraging parents to take CPR classes.

Educating parents

Pediatrician Don Seidman said he also tries to educate parents when they call or visit his DuPage Medical Group practice in Elmhurst, Ill., after their child has coughed up water. He estimates there have been one or two calls a week since the weather warmed.

“Actual drowning is a real important thing,” he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children ages 1 to 14. Because of that, Seidman recommends that parents remain “arm's length distance” from young children, among other common safety tips. “These are the things that matter.”

Dr. Faith Myers of Pediatric Wellness Center in Lemont, Ill., said parents also mistake swallowing water for inhaling water. She calms nervous parents who ask how long they should monitor their children, even if it's been days since they swallowed water.

“Parents are really wanting us to give them reassurance,” she said. “And I get that.”

Kate Thayer is a Chicago Tribune writer.

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