What is DRY drowning? How to spot if your child inhaled water while swimming – and whether it is fatal


Although exceedingly rare, two cases of dry drowning have made national headlines this month.

Francisco ‘Frankie’ Delgado, four, died on June 3, six days after he inhaled water while swimming with his family in Texas.

Doctors suspect the little boy died from a form of dry drowning, a rare medical condition that predominantly affects children because their bodies are small.

This out-of-water drowning happens when someone breathes in water, leading to breathing problems.

After the toddler’s story went viral, Colorado father Garon Vega recognized similar symptoms in his two-year-old son Gio and was able to save the child’s life.

So what is dry drowning and how can it be spotted in time?

What is dry drowning?

Dry drowning isn’t limited to swimming pools and it can happen in any body of water, including the bathtub.

It occurs in one to two percent of drowning accidents and most cases occur in children because of their small size, although it still can happen to adults.

According to the CDC, ‘injury’ drowning is the second leading cause of death among children. The organization does not keep numbers on dry drowning.

Although Freddie’s case is being called dry drowning, Dr Ray Pitetti of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said he believes it’s a case of secondary drowning.

 Francisco Delgado III (pictured) is believed to have died from dry drowning after he went swimming in Texas  The four-year-old died on June 3

The associate medical director of emergency pediatric medicine said: ‘These terms are used the same way but are two different things.’

Dr Pitetti said water is inhaled and although it doesn’t reach the lungs, it causes the larynx, the air passage to the lungs, to shut as a protective response.

He added: ‘Dry drowning is a reflex the body has in the upper part of the airway. There is actually no water in the lungs.’

The person’s vocal cords begin to seize up, called a laryngospasm, and airways begin to close, making it harder to breathe.

The body is then deprived of oxygen and begins to suffocate.

Dr Pitetti said because the body isn’t getting enough air, the obvious symptoms begin to show in minutes after the accident.

What is secondary drowning?

Dr Pitetti said he believes that both Freddie and Gio had secondary drowning because X-rays showed they had fluid in their lungs.

Secondary drowning is different than dry drowning because water actually reaches the lungs.

Dr Pitetti said this condition happens when water is breathed in and makes its way to the lungs.

The water is trapped inside the organs, causing irritation and inflammation, resulting in trouble breathing. This is known as pulmonary edema.

Secondary drowning can be harder to spot at first because it isn’t as immediate as dry drowning.

Dr Pitetti said these two terms are often used interchangeably because both refer to drowning that happens out of the water.

He said knowing their difference is important.

What are the symptoms?

Experts say the first warning sign is when a child has a near-drowning experience.

For dry drowning, symptoms usually occur almost immediately after a person leaves the water.

Dr Pitetti said a child will not be able to breathe or have a very hard time breathing, coughing and gasping for air.

In secondary drowning, symptoms are slower to show up, within an hour to 24 hours.

Dr Pitetti said: ‘When they first get out of the water, they may cough and then will normally be okay.

‘As the day goes on, breathing gets a bit faster and just progresses.

‘They will be working harder to breathe, with the belly moving in and out or the ribs showing the strain.’

Other symptoms apart from breathing issues include coughing, pains, extreme fatigue, throwing up and changes in behavior.

All of these indicate that the brain and body is not getting enough oxygen and the person should receive medical care.

Recent cases of dry drowning

'There are no words to describe how heartbroken we are over the passing of Baby Frankie,' a Go Fund Me page dedicated to raising money for the family said 

Francisco Delgado III, known as Baby Frankie to his parents, was swimming with his family at the Texas City dike.

His parents Francisco Jr. and Tara said the boy started to complain of stomach pains shortly after getting out of the water, but they figured he just has a regular bug.

Over the next week, they say that he stared vomiting and having diarrhea, but appeared to be getting better.

Then things got much worse.

Francisco says that his son complained of his shoulders hurting Saturday morning, and went back to sleep, only to wake up in serious pain hours later.

‘Out of nowhere, he just woke up. He said, “ahhh,”‘ his father told KTRK-TV. ‘He took his last breath, and I didn’t know what to do no more.’

The boy was rushed to the hospital where he later died.

‘I walked in. I could see him lying there. They were still working on him. I’m screaming. Let me just touch my baby. Maybe he needs his mama’s touch,’ Tara Delgado said.

She added: ‘When she came in, she told us it’s what’s called dry drowning. His lungs were full of fluid. There was nothing else they could do for him.’

Gio Vega, age two, nearly died after swallowing a small amount of water during a swim at a community pool in Colorado    His father Garon Vega took him to the emergency room after watching a news story about another boy who had similar symptoms and died of 'dry drowning'

Staff Sgt. Garon Vega was able to save his son Gio after hearing of Frankie’s case.

Gio had swallowed water during a trip to their community pool and started suffering similar symptoms, including a fever and trouble breathing.

An X-ray showed fluid in the boy’s lung. A doctor said it was a good thing that Vega brought his son in as he probably would not have survived the night.

Vega has thanked Delgado’s parents, saying he likely wouldn’t have taken Gio to hospital if they hadn’t spoken out about their own tragedy.

‘I feel like I needed to reach out to the parents of little Frankie and tell them, I don’t know how to word it, but their little boy saved our little boy’s life,’ Vega told ABC 13.

‘There was a purpose.

‘It was an unfortunate thing that happened, but if I had not told my wife that he swallowed the water, and if she had not seen that article, I think we would’ve ended up dispelling it as a regular sickness.’

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