Water safety – cold water shock

What actually IS “cold water shock”? Well, the term refers to a range of natural reactions by our body to protect us when we enter cold water. Sometimes, however, these reactions can have the exact opposite effect and work against us. It’s not just ice-cold water that can send our bodies into shock though – it can happen at anything below the temperature of, say, a swimming pool.

There are three stages of cold water shock:

Stage 1: Gasping for breath, followed by rapid breathing (hyperventilating)

Stage 2: As you lose control of your breathing, you blood pressure shoots up as your body tries to keep your blood warm; moving it towards the middle of your body (this is why you go pale when you get cold). At this stage, you have your window of opportunity to get out of the water before you progress downwards.

Stage 3: As your muscles cool down, your strength, endurance and muscle control all reduces until you get to the point where you can’t swim any longer and therefore you can’t rescue yourself. This is referred to as “swim failure”. Once you reach this stage, if you’re not out of the water or in possession of a buoyancy aid of some kind, you will drown.

A lot of people talk about death from hypothermia after falling into cold water, but in actual fact unless they have a way of surviving past “swim failure” you will drown before you become hypothermic. Even in really cold water, it takes around 30 minutes for hypothermia to set in. It is crucial to remember than hypothermia still remains a risk even when you are out of the water, unless you are able to warm up quickly and effectively.

Here are 3 things to remember to help you if you fall into the water:

Roll over: Keep your mouth away from the water until you can control your breathing. Roll on your back and float or paddle to stay at the surface

Act quickly: Don’t waste time – swim for an exit or a floatation aid before your muscles get too cold. Call for help

Warm up: Once you are out of the water, get yourself warm as quickly as you can to avoid hypothermia

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