Medicine likes to have a name for every variant of a disease. To name something is to control it, at least in theory.
This frenzy of naming even involves drowning. There is active and passive drowning, meaning the person is struggling or not. The lifeguards among us know that this is important mostly in who can safely perform a rescue.
Struggling people need a strong swimmer with specific life-saving training. I certainly remember a life-saving teacher clamping me in a headlock, in the deep end, as a learning experience. What did I learn: not to turn my back to this sadist while in the pool.
There are also wet and dry drownings. This is really something only of interest to the person doing an autopsy. If the lungs are wet, this means the drowning victim inhaled some water, which happens in drowning cases.
Sometimes the lungs are dry because the larynx was in spasm when the person died. Another reason for Dry Lung Drowning is nefarious and requires the sharp-eyed service of a medical examiner (looking for bullet holes).
Secondary drowning is yet another variation and it is useful primarily to investigators. For instance, a strong swimmer gets knocked out and drowns. Why? Maybe they hit their head diving off a boat or dock, or had a heart attack.
All of these sub-classifications of drowning seem to have birthed a new urban myth. Someone has taken the concepts of dry and secondary drowning and decided there are alligators in the sewers.
What they came up with is almost as crazy. The story is that a normal kid can go swimming, have a great time, and a week later mysteriously die from “dry drowning.” That is not a medical thing, and parents should not worry because it doesn’t make much medical sense.
Occasionally, a child will inhale a little lake water and develop pneumonia a few days later. This is unusual because kids’ immune systems are pretty strong. Further, pneumonia in a young person is rarely very dangerous and the person usually responds quickly to treatment.
More than a few people think we should abolish all drowning classifications, and just call it drowning. It’s simple, straightforward and Zen.
Bottom line: Your kids do need to be watched carefully when swimming. And don’t forget the sunblock.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
Photos courtesy of the artists of Unsplash.