Cold water immersion: the shocking reality

by Jeffrey Pollinger, D13 Public Affairs

Think you’re a good swimmer? It may not matter if you suddenly and unexpectedly end up in the frigid coastal and inland waters of the Pacific Northwest. Every year, dozens of swimmers and boaters drown in lakes, rivers and coastal waters in the Pacific Northwest. But it may surprise you that many victims don’t die as a result of poor swimming skills or the effects of hypothermia, but from the immediate effects of cold water immersion, or cold water shock.

Unlike hypothermia, the effects of cold water immersion can lead to death in just a few minutes and in some cases, instantly.

Sudden entry into the water can cause cardiac arrest, even for people in good health. The shock of the cold water can also cause an involuntary gasp reflex that can cause victims to inhale water and drown. After just a few minutes, the ability to swim or tread water is impaired as the victim loses muscular coordination. All of this can occur in water as warm as 69 degrees.

“Sudden cold-water immersion is a phenomenon that is becoming more recognized as a cause of death as compared to hypothermia,” Said Dan Shipman, recreational boating safety specialist with the Coast Guard’s Thirteenth District office in Seattle.

True hypothermia usually doesn’t normally set in until at least 30 minutes after being in the water, depending on body size and type, insulation of clothing and other factors. Even then, victims can survive for hours before losing consciousness and drowning.

So what can be done to protect yourself from the effects of cold water shock? Wear a survival suit or personal floatation device.

Survival suits, which keep cold water away from the body, minimize the loss of body heat and muscular coordination. That gives victims a better chance to climb back onto an overturned boat, swim to shore or signal for help.

PFD’s are just as important. Because a PFD keeps a person’s head above the water, the potentially deadly effects of the gasp reflex that can lead to aspiration and drowning are minimized. A PFD also provides some protection from the cold water and makes the wearer more visible.

But PFD’s and survival suits are virtually useless unless they are worn at the time someone becomes immersed in cold water.

“Amazingly, many people are not prepared for accidental immersion in cold water by already wearing a survival suit or PFD. They think that, if worst comes to worst, I’ll just put it on in the water. That’s a difficult enough task in warm water and calm conditions. In cold water, it’s nearly impossible”. Said Ted Rankine, former chair of the Canadian Safe Boating Council.

Experts say that there are other things you can do to increase your chances of survival if you do end up in the water. First, don’t panic. Keep your head above the water and concentrate on breathing. If you can find a way to get out of the water, do it quickly.

Better yet, take every measure possible to prevent a sudden entry into cold water.

For more information about the effects of cold water immersion, visit the Alaska State Boating Safety website.

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2 Comments

  1. Marcelle Fahr says:

    Reading this brings to mind a question about the many “polar bear plunges”, or jumping/getting into a cold or frozen body of water on Jan 1 or Feb 14 of each year in the Midwest (elsewhere, too?). Is the risk of death any less likely in that situation than in the one mentioned above? I’ve always been curious about the effects on my body as I would like to do one of those plunges.
    Thank you,
    Marcy Fahr

  2. cgnews says:

    I’m not doctor but it doesn’t matter whether you are jumping in for fun, or jumping/falling off a boat, your body doesn’t know the difference.