A 4-year-old almost died from 'dry drowning' — a doctor weighs in on how to stay safe

News that a 4-year-old came close to death days after ingesting water in a swimming pool has, understandably, rattled the internet. “Dry drowning” — as it’s often referred to in these stories — seems to captivate and terrify parents in equal measure. The stories are, admittedly, harrowing. But an ER doctor tells Yahoo Lifestyle that on top of being incredibly rare, these accidents are treatable.

The latest story about “dry drowning” involves Elianna Grace, a young girl in Sarasota, Fla. The 4-year-old was swimming in her grandparents’ pool when another swimmer, who had inadvertently picked up the same noodle she had her mouth on, blew into it, accidentally sending water gushing into her lungs. Elianna threw up nearly instantly, which her mom considered a positive sign: “We were thinking, OK good, it came up,” Lacey Grace told a local Florida news station, WTSP

On the following Monday, two days after the incident, Elianna developed a fever — one that appeared to go down on Tuesday. But when Elianna’s fever spiked again on Wednesday while she was at school, Lacey rushed there to drive her daughter to urgent care. In the time it took to get there, Elianna took a turn for the worse. “Her skin turned purple, her heart rate was through the roof, her oxygen level was dropping,” Lacey told WTSP. “The doctor came right in and just said, ‘I don’t know where the nearest ER is’ because he’s new to the area, but he said, ‘You have to get to it right away.’”

“Dry drowning” seems to captivate and terrify parents in equal measure. (Photo: Getty Images)

Once Elianna was in the ER, doctors diagnosed her with chemical pneumonitis, aspiration pneumonia, and perihilar edema. The water in her lungs had caused both inflammation and a life-threatening infection — one that, thankfully, was still treatable.

In a Facebook post detailing the incident. Lacey explains that part of her decision to seek immediate medical help was her memory of a 4-year-old boy dying from “dry drowning.” Beneath a picture of Elianna in a hospital bed connected to oxygen, Lacey writes about wanting to spread awareness to help other parents. 

If your child inhales a bunch of water, and something seems off AT ALL, I encourage you to immediately get help,” she writes. “I wonder if I would have taken her Monday, would she be better off?? And I wonder if I waited longer what would have happened. It’s so scary.”

As of this week, Elianna was home from the hospital and continuing to recover. But due to the exorbitant cost of the hospital bills, a friend of the family set up a GoFundMe to help.

Although this “dry drowning” story has a happy ending, others that have circulated in the past have proven to be fatal, leading parents to fear putting their children in the pool at all. But Lisa Dabby, an emergency medicine physician at UCLA Medical Center, says the panic is overblown. “‘Dry drowning’ is not a medical term, there’s technically no thing as dry drowning,” Dabby tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think what [parents] are concerned about is when a kid aspirates fluid into their lungs. This is very rare, and there’s a lot of confusion about it, so it’s good to educate.”

Dabby, a mother of three, understands the panic that stories like this can induce. But she says this scenario isn’t one that causes sudden death. “It’s not something where they just die in their bed overnight,” she says. “You’ll see that something has changed in their respiratory system.”

She points out that if a child ends up taking on fluid in the lungs, symptoms usually appear in six to eight hours.

“There can be coughing spasms, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and sometimes vomiting,” Dabby says. “If you are concerned that any of these symptoms are present, and there has been an incident, then we want to see you right away. But there are a lot of supportive measures we can provide.”

In these cases, Dabby says what happens most often is that the intake of water has caused inflammation in the lungs, preventing them from getting enough oxygen. But this can be treated with medicine and assisted breathing. In even rarer cases, like Elianna’s, the water in the lungs (because of bacteria it may have)  leads to an infection, such as pneumonia. In that case, the symptoms may take longer to appear, but they will still be present.

“These symptoms develop — there are warning signs,” says Dabby. “They don’t just drop dead.”

For parents who are concerned, Dabby recommends first making sure that kids are never unattended in the pool (“No. 1 is preventative.”). But if an incident does occur, parents should look for signs that a child is having trouble breathing. “If symptoms are present, it’s imperative to go in right away,” says Dabby. “That way we can provide care as soon as possible.”

Luckily, in Elianna’s case, that’s exactly what her mom did. In a Facebook post a few days after treatment began, the smiling 4-year-old proudly gives a thumbs-up. Her mom’s post begins with one word: “Grateful.”

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