The ‘Other’ Form of Drowning

The term “dry drowning” is little known and often misunderstood by those who have heard of it.

Like wet drowning — which occurs when a person inhales water into the lungs and is unable to pull oxygen into his or her body — dry drowning involves an inability to pull air into the lungs. The causes of dry drowning vary, from sudden trauma to the diaphragm, to apnea, to a condition called laryngospasm.

Laryngospasm is a muscle spasm of your trachea, in your throat region, and the most common cause of dry drowning, said Josh Ellison, MD, a physician with North Dirksen Medical Associates. The spasm causes the trachea to close up, preventing proper air flow to the lungs. It’s similar to what happens during an asthma attack, which involves the bronchial tubes.

“It’s a reflex that is caused by things like sudden water into the throat, trauma to the chest, a sudden change in altitude or an anxiety attack,” Ellison said. “It’s pretty rare to encounter. People may experience this just like they would if they were choking by exhibiting signs of grabbing their neck, trying to take in deep breaths, and have eyes wide with panic because they just can’t get air in.”

Some people incorrectly believe dry drowning can occur several hours after a near-drowning event in a body of water, but Ellison said this is not the case. Laryngospasm occurs almost suddenly, and symptoms are experienced almost immediately.

Children with underdeveloped lungs or who have asthma are more prone to dry drowning.

Dry drowning is an emergency situation. If you are near somebody experiencing difficulty breathing, contact 911 immediately. Once you call for an ambulance, you can help the struggling person by encouraging them to blow air out of their lungs and not try to suck in air too hard, which can increase the pressure in their lungs and result in fluid buildup.

“The fact of the matter is, when someone looks like they are in trouble, don’t hesitate,” Ellison said. “Call 911 to help them.”