Why ER Doctors Want to Banish the Term ‘Dry Drowning’

“Dry drowning” tends to come up in the summer, as it did this June, after a young boy in Texas died several days after swimming and his parents were told it was because of dry drowning.

But terms such as “dry drowning,” “delayed drowning” and “secondary drowning” are all incorrect, and can cause unnecessary alarm, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians

Still, in very rare instances, a person can die as a result of breathing problems several days after being submerged in water. The name for such an occurrence? Drowning.

The definition of drowning is when a person has any type of breathing problems after being submerged in a liquid, said Dr. Howard Mell, an emergency-medicine physician and a spokesperson for ACEP. For example, if a person goes underwater and comes up sputtering a bit, that’s technically drowning, Mell said.

When most people think of drowning, they imagine a person going underwater and never coming up again because he or she dies from a lack of oxygen, Mell told Live Science. But “that would be the far end of the spectrum,” he said. The medical term “drowning” includes a wide range of scenarios, including deadly problems, but also milder ones.

Drowning doesn’t mean dying, he added.

In the mildest cases, drowning is when water “goes down the wrong pipe,” but this phrase is also inaccurate, Mell noted. What’s really happening is that water gets to the back of the throat and comes into contact with the epiglottis, which is the flap of cartilage in the back of the throat that blocks the breathing tube when you swallow. The muscles around the epiglottis then spasm to protect you from inhaling water. A person may cough and clear out the water, and then have no further problems.






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