When a child or adult falls in the water, it’s human nature to inhale or gulp down water in a state of panic. Once the person has been rescued from the water, most of us would assume that the danger is over.

But after taking in water through the nose or mouth, the muscles in your windpipe can become constrained to protect your lungs. Some people have labeled this condition “dry drowning,” though this is not a medical term or diagnosis. Doctors call this phenomenon “post-immersion syndrome,” and though it’s rare, it does happen.

Dry drowning mainly occurs in children. While 95 percent of children are fine after accidentally slipping underwater, it’s important to be vigilant and aware of drowning symptoms that can happen once your child appears safe and dry. Dry drowning is a medical emergency that requires prompt attention.

Dry drowning and secondary drowning are both the result of injuries that happen underwater. Dry drowning sets in less than an hour after inhaling water. But secondary drowning, which is also rare, can happen up to 48 hours after a water accident.

Secondary drowning is caused by water that accumulates in the lungs. It’s more similar to what we think of as “real” drowning because it involves your lungs filling up with water. The water then causes breathing difficulties. Both dry drowning and secondary drowning are serious health conditions that can be fatal.

You should notice the warning signs of dry drowning within an hour of getting out of the water.

Dry drowning causes the vocal cords to close over the windpipe. This effect is called a laryngospasm. The laryngospasm could be mild, causing breathing to become difficult, or it can be severe, preventing any oxygen from getting in or out of the lungs.

Symptoms to watch for after a water incident include:

  • difficulty breathing or speaking
  • irritability or unusual behavior
  • coughing
  • chest pain
  • low energy or sleepiness after a water incident

If your child is having difficulty breathing, they may be unable to speak or express their symptoms. That’s why it’s important to monitor your child carefully after a water scare to make sure they’re breathing freely.

If you see symptoms of dry drowning, you need to call for emergency medical assistance. Dial 911 without delay.

In the meantime, try to keep yourself or your child calm for the duration of the laryngospasm. Keeping calm can help the windpipe muscles to relax more quickly.

Once emergency help arrives, they will administer treatment at the scene. This may involve resuscitation if someone has passed out due to lack of oxygen.

Once the person is stable, they’ll be taken to the hospital for observation. Having symptoms of dry drowning after a submersion incident requires medical observation to make sure that regular breathing resumes and to rule out other conditions, such as secondary drowning or bacterial pneumonia. A chest X-ray or evaluation by a pulmonary specialist may be necessary to rule out water in the lungs.

Dry drowning is a type of drowning, which is one of the leading causes of death in young children. But you can minimize the chances of drowning by doing your best to prevent water accidents altogether.

In the case of children 2 years old and younger, any water submersion is a serious risk. Even if a child is just under the water for a minute or two, take them straight to the emergency room after a water scare.

Keep these safety rules in mind when you have small children in your care:

  • Supervise children who are under 4 years old in any body of water. This includes the bathtub.
  • Children under 4 years of age should never swim or bathe unassisted.
  • Passengers of all ages should wear lifejackets while boating.
  • Consider taking an infant CPR class if you frequently supervise children at the pool or the beach.
  • Invest in swimming lessons for yourself and your children.
  • Keep pool gates closed at all times.
  • Don’t swim or play near the ocean without a lifeguard present.

People who are treated immediately when symptoms of dry drowning occur have a high probability of recovering with no lasting side effects.

The most important thing to guarantee a good outcome is carefully watching for symptoms after a water accident. The minute symptoms occur, call for emergency assistance. Do not try to wait it out.