Dry Drowning Revisited

ArticleMarch 30, 2012

Back in 2007, we ran an article by Walt Bammann reporting a scary experience he had in a raft flip. He suffered a laryngospasm, a closing off of the larynx (voice box) that prevented him from breathing for several minutes. This phenomenon, when it results in a water-related death, is commonly referred to as a "dry drowning" because the victim doesn't get any water in the lungs. Some 10-15% of drowning victims fall in this dry drowning category.

The article drew a lot of interest from readers, so much so that we ran a follow-up piece with some of the reader feedback. Most boaters have never heard of this condition.

I recently received an email from Rochelle. She had found Walt's article on our site and wanted to share her experience with a laryngospasm, right in her home while drinking out of a water bottle. She reported many of the same feelings of helplessness that Walt had, and although there were other people in the room, most didn't know what to do or how to help her. Thankfully one person did; he'd had it happen to a relative. He talked to her, told her to concentrate on relaxing and kept encouraging her. She went at least 3-4 minutes before returning to regular breathing.

I forwarded Rochelle's email to Walt. He said that his brother had a similar experience when trying to swallow a dose of cough syrup.

Back in May 2010, I flipped in the cold water of the Snake River in Hells Canyon. When I surfaced, I couldn't breathe. It didn't last long, and I don't know if it was a true laryngospasm, but it was most disconcerting while it lasted.

Dry Drowning: Take Away for Boaters

  • Dry drowning, or laryngospasm, does occur – often enough that we should all be aware of it.
  • When someone goes for a swim, all other party members need to quickly locate the swimmer(s) and check on them. One great boating signal that everyone should learn is the "are you okay?" signal. The rescuer shouts or whistles to get the swimmer's attention and then pats the top of their head. The swimmer, if they think things are under control, replies by patting the top of their head. This works well when distance and/or noise makes verbal communication difficult.
  • If suffering from a laryngospasm, the swimmer needs to do their best to get the attention of others. The universal "I'm choking" signal is grasping the throat with both hands. In turbulent water, this might not be seen or could be misinterpreted as keeping the life jacket from riding up. The boater signal for "things are not okay, or stop" is arms held up and forearms crossed. This will be very visible. When rescuers draw close, the hands to the throat is great non-verbal communication.
  • When Walt got to shore he was able to breathe, and Rochelle's breath returned after being encouraged to relax. Quite possibly just being connected with rescuers will let a swimmer relax enough to start breathing. If not, a mouth-to-mouth rescue breath will likely unlock the larynx. This can be performed while the swimmer is still in the water.
  • If a swimmer is having this problem and is unable to reach shore or get help they run the risk of becoming part of that 10-15% statistic.
  • This is unlikely to happen to any one of us, but it will happen to some of us. Advance knowledge of the phenomenon can go a long way toward helping both swimmers and rescuers respond quickly and correctly. Pass the word along to people you boat with.
  • Obviously it can happen on land as well. I haven't found reference to the Heimlich Maneuver being used to break the spasm. If anyone has knowledge on this score, please let me know. If it does work, perhaps it could be used by the victim to self rescue.

Boat often, and by all means boat safe.