Cold Water Shock - What is it and how can we minimise the risk?

Cold water
14 July 2020

Cold Water Shock - What is it and how can we minimise the risk?

The subject of cold water shock has been highlighted in the news recently. A TV advert has been pulled after criticism from water safety campaigners. The criticism states that the advert would spread a potentially dangerous message. The advert spoke of 'jumping into cold water on a hot day' which sparked a very strong response from many safety groups in the UK.

What is Cold Water Shock?

To fully understand why this raised such a strong response, we need to understand more about the issue. Cold water shock is the body's involuntary response to being suddenly or unexpectedly immersed into cold water of around 15°C or lower. Any temperature below 15°C is defined as cold water and this will seriously affect your breathing and capability to move. The average temperature of UK and Irish seas is around 12°C. The River Thames is even colder than that, even in the summer months!

Cold water shock is believed to cause more deaths than hypothermia. The worst part of all is, it cannot be consciously controlled, there is absolutely no fighting it. It can even result in an immediate and complete loss of consciousness.

Cold water shock

What are the symptoms?

The cold water will instantly cause the skins blood vessels to close, this creates resistance in the blood flow. As a result of this, the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body and blood pressure rises.

The reaction can cause muscle spasms and hyperventilation, a condition which makes an individual breathe rapidly and exhale more than inhaling. Thus making a person gasp for air, unfortunately this can result in water being inhaled instead of air. Breathing can increase by ten times its usual rate. All of these factors result in anxiety and panic which again affects the individuals breathing pattern.

In certain situations, the sudden immersion into cold water could even cause the individual to have a cardiac arrest, no matter how healthy they are. Muscles can be paralysed instantly and water swallowed, so even the best swimmers can drown. It only takes half a pint of sea water to enter your lungs, for a fully grown adult male to start to drown.


What can you do to try and minimise the risk?

The first and most important thing to do, is to wear a lifejacket. The jacket will hold you up above the water level whilst you gain control of your breathing. This will improve the chance of making it through the initial shock and staying afloat until help arrives.

However, if you do fall into the water unexpectedly and you're not wearing a lifejacket, please try the following:

Take a minute - You will pass the initial effects of the cold water in under a minute. Don't try to swim straight away.

Float - It's hard to say this if you are afraid. However, lay on your back, float and try to catch your breath. See if there is something you can hold on to that will help you to float easier.

Stay calm - It's easy to say this, but once you are floating try to maintain calmness. You can then call for help, or swim for safety if possible.

If you witness somebody drowning, please don't try and be a hero and jump in. The same thing could happen to you, call the emergency services immediately. Try to shout to the person and encourage them to stay calm and stay afloat. Look around for a rescue aid, if there is no public equipment, try to find anything that will float that may assist the individual. If they are very close to the edge you can attempt a safe rescue. Lay down on the floor to prevent falling in and pull the casualty in with your arms. Don't worry if your attempt fails, you are keeping the individual afloat and the emergency services are on their way.

Respect the water

As you can see, open water can be very dangerous and must be treated with respect. This is exactly why safety campaigners are constantly trying to get the message out there.

If you do decide to swim into open water, make sure you have appropriate emergency blankets at hand so you can warm yourself up immediately. A foil blanket is ideal for keeping your body warm by reducing heat loss and helps treat people who are experiencing shock. Their foil design and reflective surface maintains body heat and can prevent hypothermia. Alternatively, cotton blankets can also trap air and keep you warm after you have been swimming in open water.

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