Swim failure and cold water drowning: The quick and deadly result of cold water immersion

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — The public image of “warm and sunny California” may lead to needless deaths in the state’s lakes, rivers and coastal areas.

Water safety experts say swim failure and cold water drowning — the fast and deadly cousin of hypothermia — can claim lives of people within seconds or minutes of being in the water.

This graphic shows the timeline of the effects cold water immersion has on the human body. (One) minute to gain control of your breathing, (10) minutes of meaningful movement to perpetuate self-rescue and (one) hour before becoming hypothermic and losing consciousness. (U.S. Coast Guard graphic by Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Stanton)

This graphic shows the timeline of the effects cold water immersion has on the human body. (One) minute to gain control of your breathing, (10) minutes of meaningful movement to perpetuate self-rescue and (one) hour before becoming hypothermic and losing consciousness. (U.S. Coast Guard graphic by Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Stanton)

“Everyone who enters cold water doesn’t drown, but research shows that many drowning incidents may be the result of cold shock response and cold incapacitation,” said Paul Newman, recreational boating safety specialist for the 11th Coast Guard District. “In cold water drowning situations, if you survive the first minute, the cold will soon rob your muscles of their strength and dexterity. Even strong swimmers can experience swim failure after a few minutes. When this happens, without a life jacket, you can quickly drown.”

The 1-10-1 Principle: 1 minute – 10 minutes – 1 hour This graphic shows the timeline of the effects cold water immersion has on the human body. (One) minute to gain control of your breathing, (10) minutes of meaningful movement to perpetuate self-rescue and (one) hour before becoming hypothermic and losing consciousness. (U.S. Coast Guard graphic by Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Stanton)

When a cold water drowning situation begins, a person has about one minute to gain control of their breathing and 10 minutes or less of meaningful movement and muscle control to get themselves out of the water. Hypothermia may set in within one hour, but without a lifejacket, the victim is likely to drown before that occurs.

The Coast Guard and water safety experts say public education and preparedness may help prevent cold water drowning deaths. In addition to understanding the physiological effects of cold water, if people are aware that the initial shock of entering the water can cause panic and gasping, they may be able to stay calm, control their breathing and take quick action to save themselves.

Cold water is any water under 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Many California lakes and waterways are cold enough year round to pose a threat of cold water drowning. The state’s coastal ocean temperatures average in the mid-50s to mid-60s degree range.

“Cold water is a very unforgiving environment,” said Rear Adm. Joseph Servidio, commander, 11th Coast Guard District. “Boating, swimming and water sports can be fun and safe activities, but people need to know the dangers, know their limits, and be ready to take quick action in the case of an emergency. In the case of cold water drowning, a life jacket buys you time to rescue yourself or be rescued by others,” he said.

Never swimming alone is a key safety tip. Everyone working or recreating around cold water needs to know that swim failure and cold water drowning can happen, be prepared to save themselves or help others in trouble and not be lulled into complacency when the weather is sunny or warm.

The Coast Guard reminds boaters and beachgoers to always use caution around the water, watch out for one another, and call the Coast Guard or 911 at the first sign of trouble or distress.

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