Dry vs secondary drowning

By Nikki Jurcutz , Tiny Hearts First Aid

PBC Expo spoke with Nikki Jurcutz, CEO of Tiny Hearts First Aid, and advanced life support paramedic, to get a better understanding of dry drowning versus secondary drowning.

Following a number of cases regarding children obtaining submersion injuries, we were prompted to write an article to explain both dry and secondary drowning. The topic has been given much media attention of late and we have received a lot of questions from concerned parents wanting clear and simple information relating to this type of injury. We hope to provide you with a realistic understanding of the actual associated level of risk, as well as what to look for following a water submersion incident and when to take action. 

Children are naturally drawn to water, and this normal curiosity emphasises the need to be vigilant when your children are around any form of water to avoid submersion injuries or drowning. 

Whilst the thought of your little one drowning on dry land is a scary thought, we would like to firstly bring attention to the extremely rare occurrence of submersion injuries - as they make up as little as 1% of all drowning incidents (Webmed, 2015). It is also important to note that drowning is still one of the leading preventable causes of death for children; a much more concerning fact, with 40 Australian children drowning in 2013 (Kids Safe, 2014). 

Dry drowning vs secondary drowning

While dry and secondary drowning is often used interchangeably, they are actually two separate submersion injuries. 

Dry drowning occurs when a child inhales water through the mouth or nose resulting in airway spasm and closure. In a dry drowning incident, water does not actually enter the lungs. The onset of dry drowning usually occurs shortly after the child exits the water.

Secondary drowning occurs when water enters the lungs resulting in inflammation and irritation. The liquid interrupts the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, causing difficulty breathing. Unlike dry drowning, secondary drowning may take up to 24 hours to present. 

The most important thing to be aware of is that both dry and secondary drowning result in the same signs and symptoms. 

What to look for

It is inventible that your child will spend time in water, whether that is in the bath, ocean or a pool. You should be aware of the following signs and symptoms of submersion injuries. 

Signs and symptoms

  • Coughing - persistent and forceful coughing 
  • Increased work of breathing - abnormal breathing pattern, rapid, shallow or prolonged breaths
  • Chest pain 
  • Fatigue and lethargy - drowsy 
  • Changes in behaviour - irritable 
  • Vomiting 

If your child presents with any of these signs and symptoms following submersion you should seek medical attention from your local GP or by calling 000. 


Depending on the level of severity, a child with suffering from a submersion injury may be observed, given oxygen and in the most extreme cases placed on a ventilator to assist with breathing. Early recognition and treatment will lead to improved outcomes. 


Prevention is better than cure. 

1. Constant supervision 

All children must be within constant visual eye contact of a parent or carer at all times when in and around water. Those under 5 years of age must be within arm’s reach of an adult at all times when in and around water.

2. Swim lessons 

Children have a natural fascination with water. Swim lessons will allow children to become familiar with water safety and develop and understanding of the potential dangers. Please note babies should only begin swimming lessons once they are fully immunised. 

3. Floatation devices 

Floatation devices can be an effective way to ensure your child does not become submerged in water.

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Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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